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Accompanied by AI surveillance technology, China has doubled down on its efforts to silence the Uyghur muslim population.

And with global eyes focused on the war in Ukraine, the Uyghurs feel the full weight of China’s oppressive gaze.

To understand the how the East European conflict has affected the situation in East Turkistan and what has changed over the last few years, Strike Source spoke with Salih Hudayar, Prime Minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile.

Since his last conversation with Strike Source, the U.S. and over a dozen European parliaments have recognized the Uyghur genocide in China. When asked about his outlook on the current situation, Hudayar’s views were dim.

“Unfortunately…it’s deteriorating day by day. There [are] new studies, reports that show there’s a significant decrease in the growth of Uyghur and other Turkish peoples, especially in East Turkistan. And this is as a result of the forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced family separation and forced marriages of Uyghur women to Chinese men.”

With the West’s attention on Ukraine in recent times, Hudayar feels that the situation for the Uyghurs has only become more dire.

“I feel that because of the war in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the Western world is heavily trying to push against Russia and they’re trying to prevent […] China from aligning itself.” Hudayar comments when asked about how the war in Ukraine has taken attention away from the Uyghur genocide.

“[The U.S.] is trying to deter further Chinese support to the Russians. And that means, you know, turning a blind eye to what the Chinese are doing in East Turkistan [and] the genocide that’s continuing.”

Photo by Kuzzat Altay via Unsplash

Urumqi apartment fire

In November 2022 an apartment fire in the western Chinese city of Urumqi took the lives of upwards of 40 people, according to Hudayar.

“Officially, the Chinese government claims that only ten people died. But unofficially, based on our research and based on, you know, testimonies by Uyghurs in the diaspora whose family members died in that apartment complex, there [were] over 40 people who were killed as a result of that.”

The death toll from the fire is largely attributed to the strict COVID-19 lockdown policies in the region. Urumqi residents were banned from leaving their homes, with the doors to the apartment building allegedly locked shut.

“This was very appalling,” remarks Hudayar, “because it was a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to essentially, you know, lock Uyghurs in their homes to starve them. And they purposely barred, shut these doors, [and] prevented people from even fleeing in the event of this fire.”

Hudayar also commented on the fact that while the fire was the catalyst for a wave of anti-COVID lockdown protests in the region, there was no evidence that Uyghurs participated in the demonstrations.

He explained to Strike Source that most Chinese people felt confident in their ability to protest and didn’t fear retaliation by Chinese soldiers. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, had to think about the bigger picture.

“Whereas if [the Uyghurs] were to even protest in that form, we’d be immediately gunned down. And, you know, the Chinese government would portray it as a so-called terrorist attack or fighting against terrorism, etc.”

Aerial view of Urumqi
Photo by Anagoria via Wikipedia Commons

Modern-day concentration camps

Following the United States’ official recognition of the Uyghur genocide, the Chinese government received a lot of negative attention surrounding their concentration camps. While officially called “re-education camps” or “counter-extremism centers”, the United Sates Department of Defense confirmed in 2019 that they are actually concentration camps.

“According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, there are upwards of 1,400 concentration camps.” Hudayar says, referencing a report from September 2020.

Following the increase in outside pressure, Hudayar said that the Chinese government began to transform many of these camps into conventional prisons, and even going so far as to hand down prison sentences of “15 years to life to Uyghurs that were previously extrajudicially held.”

He went on to explain that the prison sentences were given for reasons ranging from having too many kids to contact with foreigners. Even contacting a relative overseas could be considered criminal, as they are considered a foreigner in the eyes of the Chinese government.

“There [are] no lawyers representing these victims that have been sentenced to prison.” Hudayar continues, “All of these are excuses that the government has been using to further, you know, detain millions of people, but more in a so-called “judicial” way.

Satellite imagery showing Aral Facility #3, as referenced in the Australian Strategic Policy report | Google Earth/Maxar

Looking forward

With the United States likely to continue its attempts to deter further Chinese support to the Russians in the ongoing conflict, it will be important to closely monitor the situation in East Turkistan as China avoids the hot seat.

When asked which developments he thinks the world should keep a close eye on in the near future, Hudayar shared his thoughts about the increasing support of China by Muslim countries.

“There are countries that China has been extensively working with since the early nineties to suppress the East Turkistan diaspora and to suppress East Turkistan efforts to resort its independence.

A couple of these countries are, for example, Turkey, which has deep security and intelligence cooperation with China. Another one is Pakistan. And […] not only have none of these countries recognized the genocide or condemned the genocide, they are increasingly supporting the Chinese government in their efforts to surveil, infiltrate, co-opt, and influence the Uyghur and East Turkistan Diaspora organizations and communities across the world.”

The Western governments need to investigate Chinese infiltration and co-optation of Uyghur organizations in diaspora communities across the world, including here in the United States.

Salih Hudayar

This January, Uyghur communities and rights groups widely condemned a Muslim delegation visit to Xinjiang. Islamic scholars from 14 different Muslim countries arrived on behalf of an invitation from Chinese government officials.

According to Hudayar, the scholars’s presence and support allowed China to “propagate [the Uyghur] genocide as so-called anti-terrorism and Nazi separatism, and to deny and whitewash it.”

He cautions that Western governments need to act quickly to counter efforts like these, which feed dangerously into the Chinese government’s anti-terrorism rhetoric.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27th marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Hudayar wastes no words making the comparison, and stresses that governments must do more to uphold their commitments to the UN Genocide Convention going forward.

He elaborates, explaining that low-level sanctions are not enough. If necessary, diplomatic ties should be severed, even if it means expelling Chinese officials who use Western-based social media to propagate or deny the genocide.

“We need to support East Turkistan. Support cases against Chinese officials at the International Criminal Court. Just like how we are supporting Ukraine’s case against Russia at the International Criminal Court.”

Pressure is not enough, Hudayar urges the need for action. Since 2016, China “has been waging this genocide with complete impunity.” To put a stop to the genocide and China’s further expansion, it is crucial that the international community provides support during the struggle and recognizes the strategic important of East Turkistan.

“Governments, corporations, celebrities, they take to social media to reiterate that they will never again let a Holocaust or a genocide like the Holocaust occur. Yet this genocide is occurring right now at this very moment in occupied East Turkistan.”

Salih Hudayar