Nury Turkel: How the Chinese Communist Party Turned My Homeland Into the World’s Largest Open-Air Prison
“They think all the sexual violence that they’re subjecting Uyghur women to—this mysterious drug that they’re giving, forced sterilization, collective punishment through gang rape—are the methods [through which] they are liberating Uyghur women. I mean, just let that sink in.”
I sit down with Uyghur-American human rights advocate Nury Turkel, vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Nury Turkel was born in a Chinese re-education camp. His new book, “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs,” is a chilling look into China’s techno-autocracy, and what can result when a communist regime is allowed to run unchecked for decades.
Jan Jekielek: Nury Turkel, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Nury Turkel: Thank you very much for having me on.
Mr. Jekielek: Nury, I just finished reading your book, your memoir. It’s beautifully done.
Nury Turkel: Thank you, Jan.
Mr. Turkel: That means a lot to me. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to start actually where you start in the book because you bring the readers in really quickly with this example of a man who’s being interrogated in a tiger chair. Maybe you can tell me what that is in a moment. And then there’s this whole kind of newfound technocratic regime that’s working to use the information that he actually passed on. So tell me the story.
Mr. Turkel: The story that I started the book involves an individual who were there, committed no crime, having a foreign contact, and simply there for a family visit were picked up by the Chinese security. He was on the verge of being sent to the concentration camp. The method that they used was very, very concerning because they relied on the past travel history, foreign contact, and even some social contacts to create this massive database that this individual caught up with. While this was all happening, the machine was spitting out more names relied or based on, or generated with the help of something called Integrated Joint Operating Platform, IJOP. That was reverse-engineered and reported by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago.
That part of the story was investigated and reported by ICIJ, International Consortium on Investigative Journalism, that stemmed from the leaked documents. Some people call it the operating manual. Some people call it Nazi Germany’s playbook or pages from the playbook. Nonetheless, that particular leaked document was initially reported, investigated by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, coincided and verified some of the stories that are heard from the camp survivors direct/indirect victims of the ongoing genocide in the Uyghur homeland, East Turkestan.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s such an incredible thing because basically this guy gets picked up by Chinese security, right? They start pumping him for information and pulling some of the things that you described. Altogether, they managed to generate a database of 20,000 contacts, people who he was one step away from or two steps away from. But not only that, they actually go after most of them. That’s the part that’s mind-blowing.
Mr. Turkel: What happened was in a 10 days period in 2017, the Chinese security put out arrest warrants for 20,000 people, more than 20,000 people, but the police were not able to identify, locate all of them. They were scratching their heads, cussing at each other. And then they come up with about 17,000. In just 10 days, short period of time, 17,000 people’s lives are shattered. No one ever bothered to ask what crime they commit and no one bothered to ask what will happen to them in the future. So the lives of those people are so meaningless to the Chinese architects of the today’s nightmare. When you discuss that significant number of people disappeared or affected by the ongoing genocidal campaign, most people find it incredible that that many people can be rounded up. There’s a quota, and this is all generated by machine.
This tech-authoritarianism, this pervasive surveillance initially starting with a personal data collection: that includes sound samples, voice samples, iris samples, DNA samples. They created a massive database starting in early 2012, all the way to 2016, so people using WeChat, communicating, traveling, passport application, even signing up in innocuous tours, sighting around the world.
If you happen to be one of those 26 countries, including the United States, you are part of the IJOP database. That was the basis for the Chinese security to start running on people. So this is how it started, and it’s still ongoing. And because of this IJOP, the Uyghur individuals on the ground made a conscious decision to discontinue or deleting foreign contacts, their children, even in some instances spouses in order to avoid being caught up in this network.
Mr. Jekielek: Deleting them from their devices, like computers and cell phones.
Mr. Turkel: Because you are subject to a regular phone data scan. If you have somebody in your phone contacts or if you have a history of text messaging on calling, if your device is scanned by police, there’s a chance that you’ll end up being in the camp. So the parents, a lot of Uyghurs around the world, when you talk to average Uyghur, it will tell you why and how long that person is not able to speak with their parents.
In one heart-wrenching story that the president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa found out about his missing mother who died in a concentration camp through a Radio Free Asia reporting. He had no contact with his family whatsoever. This is happening in our society here in the United States and Canada. There are thousands of the Uyghur individuals in diaspora still to this day cannot have a normal regular contact because of IJOP.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so I want to talk a little bit more about this database, because it’s very important that not a lot of people know about. Before we go there, you are a pretty unique person in this country and I think you’ve actually played a pretty important role in helping people understand the reality of what the Chinese Communist Party does to its own people, notably the Uyghurs, but not just.
Mr. Turkel: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But I want to talk a little bit about how you got here. So a little bit of this memoir. You were actually born in a reeducation camp and that’s not something a lot of people can fathom easily.
Mr. Turkel: I never thought and never imagined talking about my arriving to this world, the way that I have almost daily, even if it was not for the new type of camps that the Chinese Communist Party set up. Of course, that’s a different type of camp, but what is similar is the method, the thinking, particularly this word that I have very allergic reaction, which is transformation, the thought transformation, reeducation. They have done this to Falun Gong practitioners. They have done this to Tibetan monks. They’ve done this to underground Christian leaders in the past. Now, they’re doing it on an industrial skill to the Uyghur people.
But back then, it was the Red Guard. Today is the Communist Party. That’s probably the only difference.
That camp that I was born in and spent few, several months of my life was resembling or copying more like a Stalin’s Gulag. Today’s camp shared a lot of similarities with the Nazi camps, concentration camps, the Dachau or the Auschwitz. This has been an ongoing repressive policies, just with a different name, a different excuse. Also, this shows that speaking out to this brutal regime comes with a heavy cost.
Just to give an example, this brutal regime does not even allow my parents to hold their American grandchildren, to live with respect and dignity. It just breaks my heart that people try to normalize. This regime cannot even stand their own population, afraid of their own population. What kind of government can be normalized if they cannot even stand their own population?
Mr. Jekielek: So many things I want to talk to you about here. But one question, actually, a lot of people might have on their mind is how is it that someone who was born with a mother in reeducation camp and actually your father in a different one-
Mr. Turkel: Yes. He was in labor camp.
Mr. Jekielek: … at the same time. How is it that you can actually get out and get to the U.S.? How does that happen?
Mr. Turkel: So, to my benefit, I was a resident in inland China. Getting passport, as you may be aware, is an impossible proposition in China, especially if you’re part of the other group, not the mainstream Chinese citizen. The getting passport was the most difficult part. And then the other challenging aspect is the financial aspect, who’s going to cover your education. So as I point out, my parents give me their life savings to send me to America for various reasons, political, economic, and future career.
As long as you have a visa, as long as you have a passport, then it may not be the case today, but you are allowed to leave. So I had legitimate documents, graduate school admission letters, the bank statements as they require in the embassies when they’re processing your application. It was very challenging for me to get even a passport, and this is something that I’m still fighting. In the last 13 years, I’ve tried to get my parents, my father recently passed away, even my mother to return to the United States. They have traveled here twice in the past. The Chinese knowingly, purposefully denying my mother’s passport application.
Mr. Jekielek: So, I guess at that time, somehow you weren’t really on their radar. They didn’t realize what you would become once you head overseas.
Mr. Turkel: That’s a great question. In all fairness, I was not politically active. The Uyghur nightmare essentially started with two things. One, the end of the June 4th pro-democracy movement, Tiananmen massacre, that Chinese military killed thousands of students protesting or demanding democratic freedom. And then the other major event was the end of the Cold War that resulted in several Central Asian countries that have historical cultural ties to the Uyghur people. That made the Chinese ratchet up, and I sensed that. I sensed that intensity and their official propaganda.
I sensed that in their official lines, condemning the West, the United States in particular, for supporting the June 4th pro-democracy movement, as well as supporting the dissidents in Central Eastern Europe that led to the demise of the Soviet Union. So I was very aware of it and it actually inspired me to go to America. That was part of the reason that I said, “Okay. There’s no future for me in this country. There’s no political future. There may not be even a gainful employment for me being a member of an oppressed ethnic group in China.” I want to go to a country that makes a difference in people’s lives. So that brought me to the United States in 1995.
Mr. Jekielek: You said that your father passed away. It’s 18 years now that you weren’t able to see him or he wasn’t able to see his grandchildren.
Mr. Turkel: People, of course, everyone could say this, but my father was a remarkable individual and source for inspiration for me and my brothers. He always emphasized learning, to get the best education, excel, whatever the career you end up having in the end. He also someone who’s remarkably resilient that despite him being forced to spend three years for nothing in the labor camp and forced to be separated from his wife, newly wedded wife who was pregnant with me, he was not bitter.
He always had such a positive worldview instead of being bitter. He always focused on us, our education, our values. But what is most difficult thing for me to fathom today is the fact that despite my effort, giving the best I can during the past 13-plus years, I was not able to get him and mom out of China to let them come to the United States, to have a few days of a dignified life embracing their American grandchildren. That was taken away from us.
The most hurtful thing that I’ve been sharing with the public through my message right after my dad passed away, the fact that I was so close, I was essentially next door in Uzbekistan when I heard the news and yet I was not able to go hold my mom and carry dad’s casket. Even that was taken away from me because I got sanctioned last December.
I can tell you more about it if you’re interested, but I got sanctioned and I was in official travel to Uzbekistan, literally next door, in almost the same distance from here to New York, and yet because of Beijing’s willful deliberate method of punishing me and my family for doing what I had been doing as a free person in the United States, I was prevented doing something so normal, so basic for most people in free societies. That was the most difficult part.
I haven’t seen my mother since my law school graduation. They were here in 2004. I had two weeks with dad in late 2014 in Turkey. That’s about it. Since 1995, I had been only able to spend 11 month with mom and dad, which in and of itself is quite painful experience for me. I haven’t had the chance to hug and touch my parents more than half of my life.
Mr. Jekielek: So what you’re describing is this standard Chinese Communist Party policy of guilt by association. With the Uyghur people, it’s like the entire group of Uyghurs has basically been… This policy has been hoisted on them. So let’s talk about why you were sanctioned because it took 20 years of hard work to get that sanction, right? I’m saying this kind of joking, but you were sanctioned after the U.S. State Department officially designated basically what? The crimes against humanity against Uyghur people as a genocide. And so, why do you think they picked you?
Mr. Turkel: I can’t specifically speak for their thought process or the decision-making process, but what was obvious then and now is that they wanted to send a message that they can go after anyone, not only me, six other commissioners at USCIRF, where I have been commissioner, now I’m serving vice-chair, have been sanctioned. This is a small federal government agency. We monitor religious freedom around the world. The countries that we monitor around the world are kind of Chinese friends to say using a nicer word. Secretary Pompeo said that China has its own league when it comes to human right abuses and those are the countries exactly in that league. That’s one piece.
They wanted to send a message to their allies, their friends, they don’t have ally, but their supporters, that they can do this to punish U.S. officials who have been critical of those countries, religious persecution, history of religious persecution.
And then two, they want to send a message to the U.S. government, the executive branch in Congress that they also can go after U.S. officials. Finally, I think they also wanted to send a message to the Uyghur community that they can go after high-profile Uyghur advocates for them, that there is a cost if you continue to speak up. There are number of U.S. and Western Canadian, European politicians and lawmakers have been sanctioned, including several academics. But I don’t think that the Chinese government understands that we’re not afraid of them.
This is what we do. We got sanctioned for us doing the right thing, defending religious freedom and human rights and speaking out against atrocities, but we are sanctioning them for violating the international law, the basic norm of human rights. So there’s a fundamental difference. This is why when they sanctioned Western officials, their response is a badge of honor. But when we sanction them, that is real. We go after their bank accounts. We put a restriction on travel rights. None of the individuals, especially in the U.S. government, including Secretary Pompeo, former deputy national security advisor, Pottinger, commerce secretary, was planning to go to spend the summer in Beijing, so I think it’s okay.
But what I wanted to highlight is that I got sanctioned for the policy announcement by the U.S. government that I advocated for. It is to the extent a gratifying experience to see. This happened right after the Olympic boycott announcement. This happened right after the U.S. sanctioning of four senior Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act.
This has happened around the time that the major legislation Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was passed in Congress and about to become law. So these are the things that I advocated for. If the Chinese wanted to go after me, so be it. When you do the right thing, there’s always cost. There’s always risk to it. But at the end of the day, the history will be kind to those who end up doing the right thing.
Mr. Jekielek: So for the better part of 20 years, you’ve been basically advocating for the rights of the Uyghur people, Chinese people, right?
Mr. Turkel: And the others who have been persecuted in similar fashion.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Right. Well, how did this start? Because this wasn’t your full time job, but you got to the point where you were successful in getting a genocide designation, not yourself, of course, many people. But I mean, it’s frankly rare for human rights advocates to see the fruits of their labor so clearly, right?
Mr. Turkel: Yes. Yes. Without getting into too much details as to the process, there was a turning point in February 1997. This was roughly around two years being in America. What happened was in my father’s hometown, there was young Uyghurs took to the streets to protest against forced abortion, nuclear testing, restriction on social rights.
As you recall, I mentioned the post-Cold War tightening up. It was around the time that they’re ratcheting up the pressure. The police response was so brutal. It was frigid February weather. You could easily die if you don’t properly wear clothes. The weather was so cold. They used water hoses and rounded up lots of people. This was around the time that I was just debating whether I should go back to China after my graduate education. From 1995, all the way to that period, I didn’t involve in any public political, even discussion, let alone being so public as I have been in the past decade or so. That was a turning point.
And then I thought, “Okay, this is the government, cannot even handle the children, young kids demanding something so basic.” To be able to have children is the decision that should be decided by a couple, not by the government. And then demanding that nuclear testing stop is a legitimate demand. They didn’t have to be subject to water housings, mass detention and heavy imprisonment. And it happened in my father’s hometown. It hit me hard and it made me realize, “Okay. It is naivete to think that this government will do the right thing.” I give them enough time. I never went to publicly criticize them. I was always giving them the benefit of the doubt that they may end up doing the right thing. That was the turning point.
So fast forward, and then another turning point was 9/11. I took it very personal. Even to this day, whenever any government uses religion as an excuse for repression, calling religious practices as some extremist ideology, thought virus, evil, that kind of rhetoric comes from any government. It doesn’t matter. Even our government don’t talk like that. But even in some Western governments, in their relationship with dealing with national security issues is unacceptable for me because that’s the beginning of today’s nightmare. After 9/11, the international community looked the other way. Even United States agreed to designate some obscure organization as a terrorist organization that given the green light to the Chinese regime. So, that was another turning point.
Mr. Jekielek: The Chinese Communist Party basically used this as an opportunity, right?
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. Even to this day, they use this to justify this atrocious crimes that are committing against vulnerable religious and ethnic groups. As we speak, the international community rightfully focusing on the Uyghurs, but the others should be given the same level of attention. The Falun Gong practitioners, the Tibetan Buddhist, the Catholics, they’re not getting enough attention. They should be appearing in the same discussion and same sentence because they’re also equally vulnerable. This is what makes me worry today. If you don’t stop this atrocity, this crime committed against the Uyghurs, it may become a new norm and they will be used against others, even though some of it’s already been in practice.
For example, the organ harvesting that Falun Gong practitioners were subjected to organ harvesting, organ trade, and people didn’t pay attention. Now, it’s happening to the Uyghur. So they recycle, using one group as a test ground to the others and implement. If it’s successful, it becomes a new norm. That what makes me worry about. So I start speaking up after 9/11. I wrote essays. I picked up a new hobby writing op-eds. I get involved in a Guantanamo work in the efforts to cleanse Uyghur image that was tarnished because of some of the shortsighted decisions made by our own government in the Bush administration.
And then 2009, there was another turning point, the Ürümqi unrest, where students took to the street to protest against the brutality that the workers in this toy factory in Guangdong experienced. Again, this is related to this forced labor practice that we know more about today. These peaceful protestors, just like the 1997, met with heavy armed Chinese security. Thousands of people disappeared. We still don’t know what happened to those people who were taken. “Financial Times” reported then, in just one night, 4,000 people detained and there was overcapacity. They used the warehouse to keep those people. To this day, we don’t know. And then, obviously, naturally, in late 2016, 2017, we find out about today’s nightmare.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned 2016 many times and I want to highlight this for our audience, something very significant happened, which is basically the man who “pacified” Tibet was basically shifted to Xinjiang to ostensibly to do the same. That’s a very significant change.
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. Some policy analysts, some historians find similarities between this person, Chen Quanguo and Adolf Eichmann, because of his effort to exceed the expectation of his superior, which is Xi Jinping in this case. Chen Quanguo, he has military background. His private life is very secretive even to this day. He did a “amazing job” on behalf of CCP in Tibet. During his tenure, we saw significant number of Tibetan self-immolations. We know now that he was the one who installed all the surveillance apparatus during his tenure in Tibet. Because of his effort and “success” in squelching Tibetan resentment, he got promoted in August 2016.
When he was moved to Ürümqi from Lhasa, he brought his own security detail as reported in “The New Yorker” piece last year. Not only that he set up a command center in a government hotel in Ürümqi, it sounds like a… It just gives you an image of science fiction that there’s this massive surveillance apparatus, cameras, screens all around you and you sit there. Instead of being a political leader for the communist party, you essentially managing the largest prison system that the world has not seen since the Holocaust. The massive surveillance apparatus that the modern era, no country has seen, and also the immense political power that he was bestowed by Xi Jinping to do whatever.
I mean, leaked documents shows that Xi Jinping essentially says, “Show no mercy.” That is the policy pronouncement. And then Chen Quanguo goes around and tells his officials, “Round up. Everyone should be rounded up.” Unlike the United States, other liberal democracies, there’s no policy debate in China. If a supreme leader or his henchman or a supporter says a few words, that becomes a policy. So Chen Quanguo was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Recently, he’d been promoted. People think that he’s removed, but it doesn’t work like that in China. Chinese never, ever punish their political individuals or party officials who serve the interest of the party. Even to this day, they don’t even condemn Li Peng, who’s the one ordered the massacre in Tiananmen Square. So there is a lot of naivete, a lot of misunderstanding in the Western societies when they talk about China. So this person rightfully been sanctioned. I’ve been advocating this, his network should be looked into for potential targeted sanction because no perpetuator, no bad actor, no brutal regime or entities, individuals should be allowed to remain anonymous. They should be subject to public naming, shaming.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m just going to read something. I pulled a quote from the book about what things look like in this system that you were just describing. So, this is what you wrote. You wrote, “Whenever Zumrat met someone she trusted in the streets, there was a little ritual each person would go through before exchanging tidbits of gossip. First, they would roll their eyes up, or to the left or right to indicate where the nearest surveillance camera was mounted, and then talk briefly, scratching their noses or mouths so that the words could not be deciphered by lipreading. As in other totalitarian states, paranoia became the watchword for survival, only more so, because China could use its cutting-edge artificial intelligence and high-tech monitoring to peer into the most private recesses of people’s lives.”
Mr. Turkel: So this is very riveting, one piece of the story that I’ve heard from many people who are either directly or indirectly affected by it. The daily fear were widely focus on those rounded up in the camp, but we forgot what is the life for the people outside of the camp. As described by Zumrat, cameras are ubiquitous. They have mobile police cars. They can stop you, check your mobile device for problematic content. That includes innocuous picture or text message or call history.
Mr. Jekielek: You have to check in and basically get your phone scanned.
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. I got involved in a two-hour long documentary produced by “Frontline.” In the beginning of that show, a well-known AI expert, Mr. Lee, said that China is a new Saudi Arabia for personal data today. That shows what they did to reach this point. So nothing you do in a society can escape the eyes of the surveillance apparatus. So Zumrat’s narrative, the environment that she described to me is very common.
Look, can you imagine that you live in a society that everywhere you go, you are literally under the camera? Not only the camera is pointing at you, but the mobile device that you’re carrying is essentially a tracking device and listening device. Also, can you imagine that you go through various checkpoints every day, subjecting yourself to a daily humiliation, simply because you happen to be Uyghur, simply you have different lifestyle, simply you follow different religions, simply you follow different tradition? The others waving their hand when they go through the checkpoints. It’s just a daily fear.
The state department official Dan Nadel said that China has created an open air prison for the Uyghur people. I think that’s an accurate description. This was said during the press conference on the occasion of the annual Religious Freedom Report release. So, the stories that Zumrat and others described to me are very common. In some instance, I was told that individuals go to their relative’s apartment complex could not get in because their facial recognition or their personal information were not previously vetted and stored. So, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.
This makes me very worried about the future. I am somewhat disturbed that the international community policymakers are not paying enough attention to this. This is not a political issue. This is about the future. This is just becoming [the] new normal. The surveillance, that pervasiveness that Zumrat was telling me during those interviews is metastasizing. China has exported the same surveillance techniques to over 80 countries about a year and a half ago. I’m sure that the numbers much more significant today. So that should concern those of us who live in free societies, those of us who care about freedom, those of us who care about our privacy, those of us who care about future of the health of democracy.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that really… I mean, it’s horrifying, but it rang very true to me because some of the testimonies that I heard personally that I was writing up for the UN maybe 15 years ago is basically the use of rape as a tool of punishment and as a tool of this “transformation” that you were describing to drive people insane. You document that this is very common in these camps,
Mr. Turkel: The sexual violence against the Uyghur woman was part of the way that the Chinese government treating this vulnerable population. Not only this was happening in the camp. As you may recall, about a year or so ago, there was a tweet put out by the Chinese embassy here in Washington, D.C. This essentially liken the Uyghur woman to baby-making machine. So it says that, “We’re liberating Uyghur woman from being a baby-making machine.” That was the most horrifying things, among other things that I’ve heard publicly from the Chinese government entity here in the United States. It took us a lot of effort to even convince Twitter to take it down. This was here at home.
Why do I bring this up? They think all those sexual violence that they’re subjecting Uyghur woman to, this mysterious drug that they’re giving, forced sterilization, collective punishment through gang rape are the method that they’re liberating the Uyghur woman. I mean, just let that sink in. They do that, and then the embassy in Washington tried to justify claiming that they’re liberating the Uyghur woman from being a baby-making machine. In the prisons, based on what I’ve heard from the camp survivors, I interviewed several, only profiled three, something very common, they always look for younger, most vulnerable ones.
Then too, the prison guards apparently instructed to do that. There was a habitual practice to get women out of the cell in the middle of the night randomly. There were also unwanted pregnancies that I was told that the state owned those babies and those mothers who get pregnant disappear—never return to the cell. It reminds the old KGB tactics to make babies, and then let them train from the very early age to be loyal to the Soviet regime. It’s very similar tactics. This has to be investigated and verified, but I was told that there’s such a practice.
Also, Tursunay Ziyawudun, who were on the news that I did not put in the book, but I had a number of conversation with her about ordeal; she was gang raped in prison. Also, they using methods to torture, subject her to sexual torture. I was sitting in a public hearing in May 2021 last year, organized by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I could not even hold my tear, hold my emotion while I was listening to her after being told so many times by others’ similar sexual violence. It was a public hearing. It’s a reminder of how Hitler treated a Jewish woman during the Holocaust, using their hair, using Jewish woman for forced labor. It’s the same practice, targeting women and children. What kind of nation can exist when you target and destroy their children and women? This is brutal. They should be condemned all around.
One other thing that I also learn, and this is also very disturbing, that the Uyghur woman are not spared, even at their homes. The uninvited, unwanted Chinese cadres coming to Uyghur homes, uninvited, sleeping, and eating with a woman and children where there are no male protection available for them, in some instances, they were subject to sexual violence. One of the Uyghur victims I profiled even showed me pictures of those “relatives.” Also, I was told that they demand sexual favors when they stay with those Uyghur families. So this is a wholesale attack. In a society, you live in this fear, surveillance. Even at your home, they come to stay with you, intimidate you, even using your children to spy on you in an honest answer by your children to questions such as, “Do your parents pray at home? Do your parents read Quran? Do you know if they have a copy of Quran? Do they have prayer mat at home?” Children are honest. They tell what they know.
These are the things that I’ve been able to learn and able to describe in the book. I think we should talk more about the sexual violence against the Uyghur woman. I think it’s purposeful [and] deliberate. They try to destroy the nation.
This brings us to another point that still some people think this is a topic for academic discussion, that if this is a genocide or not. The genocide perpetrators or the actors, the regime or individuals committing genocide never announced that, “Oh, I’m going to go out and commit a genocide.” They also skillfully, in the case of China, find a gray area. That makes it difficult to justify through a legal discussion. The violence against a woman, separating Uyghur children from their parents forcibly from one group to another, attempt to destroy important whole of this ethnic group goes to the heart of the legal definition of genocide.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. I can’t help think that exactly what you’re talking about right now squares with a lot of the types of testimonies I heard from prisoners of conscience from Falun Gong practitioners, from other religious dissidents 15-plus years ago. This isn’t a new policy, right? These are policies that have been recycled, like you said, and in this case basically imposed on a somewhat isolated geographic region, almost creating like a… I’ve seen it described as the perfect police state.
Mr. Turkel: Yes. Through my research, through my interviews with various people, the most difficult, challenging part of writing a book is countless hours of interviews that you need to go through and research and reading that you do. Today, in China, people live in a combination of North Korea and the United States at the same time. It is like a North Korea police state—most repressive because there’s no freedom.
People believe in the things that was told in George Orwell’s “1984.” You’re believing without the question of what the state says, and also unwilling to criticize the state, the CCP, even though that’s so aggressive, pervasive, invasive in many aspects. The Chinese, as you know, spend more money on domestic security than national defense. Why would you do that? What is the source of your sense of insecurity? Why are you fearful of your own population? So those things are so obvious, but the Chinese people decided apparently to not to criticize the regime.
The United States aspect, I think, has a lot to do with the materialistic satisfaction that they were so fixated, or materialistic desire, big cars, big homes, vacation in Western Europe, in some instance owning private jet, having successful business in a kind of a Russian oligarchy type of setup. This is a handful of people, not everyone. It’s decided, picked by the CCP, but they don’t call them oligarchs, or they don’t even call them princeling, but it’s all selected people.
If you look at the CEO of Huawei, essentially, a former PLA. It’s picked by the central government to run this government entity. So those people are willing to send their children overseas to good schools, spend time in European vacation, big yacht, private jet, multiple homes. They are also not willing to disturb that luxury. So the CCP, lack of a better word, effectively created this strange lifestyle that people could have a taste of North Korea and the United States or West at the same time. This is what also makes me worry.
Oftentimes, when we talk about these things, the first reaction that you get from Chinese-speaking individuals, even those who had exposed to free societies often tried to play what aboutism game, immediately saying, “Oh, there’s also large black prison population in the United States. Oh, the United States has done A, B, C, D to Native Americans. Oh, United States has done A, B, C, D to so and so country,” that instead of thinking carefully, “Okay. This may not be happening to me today. It initially happened to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy activists, and then the Falun Gong practitioners and the Tibetans and the Uyghurs.” They don’t ask themselves, “Am I going to be the next?”
Borrowing the lines from Martin Niemöller, “When they come to look for me, there’s no one else, no one to speak for me.” Because initially, he didn’t care because he was not a unionist. He didn’t care because he was not Jew. And then when the Nazi regime came for him… I worry that this strange lifestyle, this social environment, trying to help to justify a central government, eventually make matters worse for people who are also a victim of the CCP regime.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re reminding me a bit of Moynihan’s Law. Someone just brought this up in a recent interview I did, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of course. Moynihan’s Law is basically the more a country talks about human rights, the better the human rights are in that place.
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. This is also a proven scientifically.
Mr. Jekielek: Or complains about human rights, the better the human rights are. You have to think about it for a moment.
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. As part of my official duty, responsibility, I always go around, tell diplomatic representatives, essentially repeating the same line as you eloquently quoted from someone that I revere. The societies that respect human rights, religious freedom, individual rights are much more prosperous and stable. The societies or governments [that] do the opposite end up buying themselves more trouble. This has been seen time and time again.
Of course, we’re not perfect, but we have places to go to. We have ways to air our frustration, express our disapprovals, or even take matters to the court, seeking justice in some instances. I often use this example, as a U.S. official, I can criticize our president. I can criticize Congress. I can go to Lafayette Park to organize a protest and no one is going to arrest me as long as I do it with approval, within the parameters. But can you imagine a official who were in the Chinese government shows up in a Tiananmen Square, chanting one anti-China slogan and you can imagine what… So this what aboutism, just the worst argument that people can put out.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. I have two thoughts here, right? But there does seem to be a kind of I’ll call it weird admiration that certain Americans have for the Chinese system. The case in point and people have sort of debate, I’ve been seeing this for a while, but we’re looking… Today, as we speak, there’s these massive lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people in China. They did this at the beginning of the pandemic and all these Western countries, ostensibly free countries, through out all their pandemic playbooks, which, of course, had nothing to do with lockdowns and adopted Chinese Communist Party policies—bizarrely.
Of course, many of us stunned didn’t fully realize what was happening as this happened, but it’s very clear that something changed. Somehow we decided that this Chinese Communist Party model of approaching a pandemic, for example, is the one we were going to do. We’re frankly watching it happen again.
Mr. Turkel: I would add three more examples to what you were describing, that we are unwittingly becoming something that we are against traditionally, historically, and societally. One, self-censorship. The people who criticize the CCP in today’s environment in the academic community is almost nonexistent, except for a few examples, so self-censorship.
The other piece that is also very important, in China, I just mentioned about the business community. The Chinese business elites don’t criticize their own government. In our business community, they just picked whatever is convenient for them. In the case of Coca-Cola, they’re ready to criticize our government, but using the same freedom, they never call out the Chinese government, the CCP, even though Coca-Cola were implicated in forced labor practices, even though Coca-Cola, one of the key sponsors of the Genocide Olympic in February 2022.
Also, there’s another piece. So when you look at these practices, it’s hard to make the distinction between some of the well-known business leaders, business elites in Silicon Valley, for example, from those tech elites in China. What would differentiate their position? So their greed, their focus, laser focus on their economic interest, in a way making them almost like the Chinese tech executives. To me, that’s very disturbing. Finally, Hollywood. Hollywood is traditionally in American society, very vocal when they see something not right. When was the last time that you see any serious Hollywood star criticizing CCP? You talked about lockdown. Even some of them even went further to pamper China for its mishandling of COVID better than us.
So the American people need to wake up. What they see is not what they should be thinking of. This regime that we are dealing with is not really a government. It’s controlled by a communist government, a communist regime, a communist party. Their domestic policy, their foreign policy, their economic policies, even the societal policies, all set by a communist party. So this normalization of this regime, thinking in a offensive way which proven to be a wrong approach in the last 30 years, a lot of people, even some reasonable smart people think that helping the China’s regime with technology and education and finance investment, for example, would make them sound like us, talk like us, walk like us, but it didn’t happen.
So I think it’s a time for the American public to stop playing what aboutism. We’re doing the bidding for Beijing and see what CCP is really about. We’ve seen it in Hong Kong. We’ve seen it in the Uyghur homeland. Now, we’re seeing it real time in the Putin invasion of Ukraine. So this naivete thinking, this shortsighted view that China could help in X, Y, Z matters, I think, is shortsighted.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about this, right? Because one of the things that we saw essentially through the Trump administration when you document this in different ways in the book is a dramatic shift in how all of society, not just the administration, but just how society perceives the Chinese Communist Party, and then with COVID, another step, perhaps, right? Now, there’s the genocide designation. Genocide is the single worst thing, I think, government and organization can do to a group of people. I think this is why the Genocide Convention was created, right? How’s U.S. policy doing at the moment, even though admittedly things have shifted quite a bit?
Mr. Turkel: Starting from fall 2018, as you may recall, Former Vice President Mike Pence delivered China policy speech at the Hudson Institute, where I have the pleasure of working as a senior fellow. I think that was the beginning of the shift. Number of things happen, even though we did not see the type of result, even though the Uyghur genocide, for example, in its sixth year. What we are seeing in American society is the consensus. Some people think that’s exaggeration. That’s not.
Pew research showed its significant vast majority of American people, I would say about 70 percent American population, wants a strong human rights-centric foreign policy with respect to China. That’s one good indication—healthy indication. We are representative democracy. If American people want our government to go one way or the other, we have to go that way, and that’s how you represent will of the people.
And then the other piece is that I think because of the previous administration’s public statements and policy pronouncements, executive actions created this healthy debate in our academic, particularly in a policy circle that we have to change the strategy. The past engagement thinking that China will become one of us did not work and they’re eating our lunch, if I may borrow Vice President Mike Pence’s line from that particular speech. Also, American people are starting to realize that United States helped to build China, the modern China. I think that issue has been identified, thanks to the previous administration and recognition by the current administration. They’re using a different language, but the recognition of this problem, the serious problem, is something I was so pleased to see.
On the policy front, I never thought any cause, let alone a Uyghur cause that didn’t have a serious financial capacity would be able to pull off this many policy decisions, legislative actions in short period of time. We’re talking about essentially two, three years. Since 2019, 2020, the U.S. Congress enacted two major bills specifically designed to address the Uyghur genocide, the Uyghur crisis and the modern-day slavery, which is huge. As you know, it requires a lot of effort, financial and human effort to put in place any type of legislation. Most significant aspect of this is the unanimity, the bipartisan, bicameral spirit shown and displayed.
There was a joke in 2020 that if anyone wanted to bring the polarized Congress together, the topic should be Uyghur because that’s the issue that most members of Congress could agree upon. As shown in the legislative awarding history, there was unanimous consent in both bills and over 400 members of Congress and the House side voted in favor and both Trump and Biden signed these bills. I think that should be a message to the Chinese that this is not something they see that could create the division or some politicians playing. They used to accuse Trump administration for being anti-China and using the Uyghur genocide as a ways and means to achieve political objectives. But if that is true, why this is still ongoing in the current administration? I think it’s really positive.
What is not working is inconsistencies. So when you make a policy pronouncement or if you put out an action, the implementation is as important as making the initial decision. So since late 2019, on the Uyghur genocide alone, both Trump and Biden administration issued more than hundred punitive sanctions. That includes entity list designation, visa restriction, and some of it were not fully implemented. These two pieces of legislation that become law in summer 2020 and last December need to be fully enforced. Otherwise, it will be just symbolic response as opposed to substantive, meaningful response.
One other thing that I think the Biden administration tried to do last year kind of disappeared now is the multilateral approach to the China issue. Europeans are coming along, but they’re not fully on board. They need to step up to the plate. Their problem is as big as ours on the economic front, on the societal front, even in the future of European democracy.
Mr. Jekielek: A number of people have said, in order to impose these sanctions, have them be meaningful on Russia, for example, right? They’re almost meaningless without secondary sanctions on China, which is basically enabling Russia.
Mr. Turkel: I have been one of those advocates for targeted sanctions. I think the sanctions take a while to show an effect, but sanction is such an important tool. It has a significant deterrence. In the case of China, it’s more important because to the CCP regime, two things are extremely important. One is the public perception, how it is portrayed in public discourse. The other is their economic interest. Both of them are so important for them to continue to have a positive image projected on the public discourse, public arena and using the economic power to expand their influence. So when you do this kind of targeted sanction, you genuinely get their attention.
We talked about my being sanctioned. I don’t have any economic interests. I don’t have a travel plan to China, and yet they did it for symbolic reasons. I’m sure that the others who’ve been sanctioned in Canada, UK in EU, here at home don’t have a specific economic or personal interest. But the others, the entities at the yesterday, there was a report in “Financial Times” that the Biden administration is going to impose a heavy sanction on the world’s largest camera maker, surveillance camera maker, Hikvision.
That is huge. In the United States, in Europe, elsewhere, Hikvision cameras are ubiquitous. Our hospitals, our prisons, in one instance one of the military bases, schools in the United States use Hikvision cameras, just one country. What does that mean? That means that this company will not be able to rely on software and hardware supplied by Silicon Valley. So if they cannot continue to do this, it will be a huge challenge for them, both technological and investment front. So, see, this is the one. And then another example-
Mr. Jekielek: I just want to jump in because Hikvision’s technology is central to this police state that we’ve been talking about.
Mr. Turkel: Right. And then the reason for the sanctioning based on the Financial Times report was that Hikvision’s enabling and facilitating the ongoing human rights abuses and it specifically mentions the Uyghur genocide. So I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s long overdue. I hope the other countries, particularly in Europe, still sleeping at the switch need to wake up to this. It shouldn’t take the genocide against Uyghurs or upending Hong Kong democracy, or Xi Jinping supporting Putin to wake up those individuals in the policy circle in Europe, in particular. This is a real thing. This is serious. Even to this day, China is… There’s a long piece published a couple of days ago that specifically says how China is supporting and State Department actually put out the fact sheet. They’re still engaging in this information campaign, trying to normalize Putin’s war crimes.
Mr. Jekielek: So it’s interesting that your book is called “No Escape,” because not only did you lose your father recently, but actually I think it’s not two weeks ago, your brother was actually attacked viciously in Fairfax County, Virginia and it’s really unclear entirely why, right? In The Epoch Times, we have a long piece by Anders Corr about it. It’s certainly consistent with the way that the Chinese Communist Party goes after even in other sovereign nations, basically, the people that it views as its enemies, or frankly, if you’re Chinese, that views that it kind of owns in a way. That’s how I view it anyway.
Mr. Turkel: Yes. That’s precisely why I name this book “No Escape” because of the impression, a realization that I’ve been living with that the Chinese leadership still think that they own me, own others, even though we have nothing to do with them as far as our rights is concerned, as far as our allegiance is concerned, as far as our citizenship is a concern.
What my brother experienced is a mystery. Why they picked this time that we were grieving for the loss of our father in the holy month of Ramadan, in the parking lot of a mosque as my brother was going in trying to attend a funeral service for a friend of ours, who also lost a loved one around the same time that our dad passed away? And that the same individual, the same group that are supporting this individual are the group of people who have been spending countless hours of time on social media, at least in the last five, six years, maligning, slandering, bullying establishment of Uyghur activists. If you compare me to others, actually, I’ve been less a target on social media.
Mr. Jekielek: Just to be clear, this is a Uyghur group itself that’s doing this work.
Mr. Turkel: Yes, it’s a Uyghur group, and that’s what makes it even more disturbing that here we have a group of Uyghur activists who are fighting day in, day out to try to stop the genocide and engage with the governments who can make a difference and yet a group of online activists, who have no influence whatsoever and have a terrible messaging, very radical views, trying to trash the people who are doing the right thing. This has been a norm, like a major distraction. Every single time when a major establishment of Uyghur organizations, such as the World Uyghur Congress try to do the same something right, just like the Uyghur Tribunal in London, there’s always distraction or autonomy versus independence. There’s always like false controversy pops up.
I get criticized for not using the platform available for me globally to change the slogan. I’m not a slogan person, and I got criticized. They picked my brother to victimize this. It is happening in the United States of America. Who is encouraging or giving the courage to this person who can commit this level of brutal crime that almost killed my brother? His eyes are still being treated. I believe in the justice system, I believe in the fairness of our law enforcement approach, but at the same time, this damage to my brother could be permanent and it should not happen.
Those of us who work on human rights should not be worrying about our safety because we live in a free society. This is our right. This is our constitutional right. We should not be worried about some foreign government trying to intimidate, harm us in a free country. And that is a serious security concern that many people share. And then these people that are doing this kind of harm are a handful. Again, where do they get the courage? Why are they so bold and how they do this? And why do people who commit these kinds of crimes, the same type of people always been causing false controversies, distractions, in the business of maligning, slandering people who are doing the right thing?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so this is what I wanted to comment on. As you said, it’s a mystery. We don’t know what actually happened in this situation, but what I do know is that in every Chinese dissident community that I’m aware of, these so-called Asian provocateurs and spies and so forth, enter these communities and disrupt them and create these kinds of animosities. I’ve seen this documented multiple times in multiple communities, and that’s what it made me think of.
Mr. Turkel: Yeah. Yeah. Some people think it’s free speech. Causing mental anguish, physical harm, imminent threat or physical harm are not free speech. Free speech is very clear. So sometimes people think that this is a part of somebody’s right. It’s something that CCP is trying to play us against each other. We should not let that happen. When you watch some of the footages coming from Australia this year, in recent years, it’s very disturbing. One of the activists who are running for office were very critical of CCP-
Mr. Jekielek: Drew Pavlou.
Mr. Turkel: Yeah. He was calling out Xi Jinping and he was attacked [in] broad daylight in the streets of Sydney. That’s Australia. What on earth that you cannot call Xi Jinping out or call anyone out? He can call out Scott Morrison, no one will do that to him. But what on earth when he calls out Xi Jinping, he gets attacked like that? I mean, somebody needs to look into this. I think we need to look at it in a broader… This is just not harassment. This is a national security threat. I think these people need to wake up.
It’s a little better in the United States, as opposed to UK and Australia, where the libel laws are very relaxed. This is why the Hoover Institute published a report a few years ago, describing that China has been engaging in corrosive, coercive, and corrupt influence operations around the world. That influence operations also comes with a huge price to ordinary people who are just speaking their mind, speaking truth to power, advocating human rights and religious freedom around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Nury, this is an excellent place to finish up. Your book, again, is “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs,” but as we’ve discussed, it talks about so much more. It’s such a pleasure to have you on again.
Mr. Turkel: Thank you very much for having me on, and I appreciate your team and your network been lending voice and providing platform and educating general public about the CCP brutalities and atrocities committed against not only the Uyghur population, but the others who are defenseless and voiceless.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you.
Mr. Turkel: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Nury and me for this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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