The Struggle of Fighting for Uyghurs in Xinjiang: A Conversation with Salih Hudayar

The history of conflict between China and the Uighur population dates back centuries. In Xinjiang, reports of detention camps and violations of human rights have increased dramatically since 2014. World leaders have responded to this by challenging China over allegations of human rights violations against Uyghur minorities, the most recent one being the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, there has been relatively little awareness about Uyghur human rights groups and their true cause interpreted across the world. Oftentimes, the public media reduces the Uyghurs to mere victims of the Chinese government, dehumanizing them in the process.

To confront this, I sat down with Salih Hudayar, Prime Minister of East Turkistan Government-in-Exile and Founder and President of the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement. At the age of 28 years old, Salih currently leads these two movements in advocating for the restoration of East Turkistan’s independence, and is deeply engaged in political advocacy and lobbying to U.S. Congress calling for international justice against the Chinese government’s practice of “genocide.” This interview will further reflect on his personal background and how it impacted his decision to work to address this global issue. 

How would you, in your own words, best describe the Uyghur culture?

Salih Hudayar: Uyghur culture is actually a unique mixture of Central Asian and Turkic cultures. And you know, some elements of Iranian cultures as well. You could even say that it’s a bit of Asian culture as well. It’s a hybrid. Even the Uyghur people themselves are actually a hybrid of the Indo-European people of the Tarim Basin. Although we are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, the closest ethnic group that we share culturally and linguistically is the Uzbeks.

You were born in Artush, Xinjiang but left the region at the age of seven. What was the main purpose of fleeing to the United States?

Salih Hudayar: Because of the colonization and the systematic oppression of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government. My father, Seyfullah Abdukadir, fled East Turkestan (recognized as Xinjiang by the Han Chinese) in the mid-1990s because of the situation. In the 90s, we had a lot of events in East Turkistan, specifically pro-independence events, which were brutally crushed by the People’s Liberation Army. This brutal crackdown endangered lives, including my father who was an independent activist. Afterwards, he fled to Central Asia, Turkey, then later to Europe, and finally came to the U.S. We arrived in early 2012 as political refugees. The reason that my father went on this tenacious expedition is that he felt that the only place where he would be able to obtain any meaningful support for our cause was the United States. He also felt that the U.S. was an ideal place where we could become enough to help our people in the future.

Now that you have told me about your personal story, when did you know of the Uyghur genocide and how did you feel about it while you were growing up here?

Salih Hudayar: Well the colonization aspect has been happening way before I was born. It started once the Chinese Communist Party began to invade East Turkestan in 1949, the time when the Chinese Communist Revolution began to unravel. Since then, they have been engaging in semi-genocidal policies like forced abortions, forced sterilizations… all of those types of things, but not on a massive scale that has happened in 2016 and onward. That was the last time that I was able to communicate with anyone in East Turkistan. Even my own grandfather told me such ambiguous phrases, like “Don’t ever call us”, “I don’t even know you” or “I am too old and sick to go to ‘school’.” The ‘school’ he is referring to is the code name for re-education camps

We all know that these crimes are happening, and I had family members die because of these crimes. I have over a hundred relatives that have been taken into the camps. Over fifty of them have been sentenced to anywhere from five years to life in prison. Four of them were killed in the prison. A lot of my female relatives were sterilized. These are aspects of genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention. At least, my relatives are lucky enough to have me outside of East Turkistan to say that these people suffered. But what about the millions of East Turkistan who have no family connections or anyone outside the country? They are the ones being targeted. 

You have mentioned beforehand that the United Nations Genocide Convention has been violated by the Chinese government. Just to clarify, could you elaborate on what sort of practices they are conducting in Xinjiang that constitute genocide?

I know for a fact that in East Turkistan, where the majority of Muslim people share a tradition of burying fellow Muslims who have passed away. But starting in 2014, the Chinese government began to build crematoriums all across East Turkestan. Why is that? It means that they are trying to hide something. In those locations, organ harvesting from prisoners went up massively from less than ten thousand per year to almost a hundred thousand per year. And the fact that Uyghurs are being sold online on Chinese websites. There are websites that advertise the selling of Uyghur females and men alike for grueling labor in factories. There are also certain airports in East Turkistan where special lanes are written as “Human Organ Exportation Lane.” It means the transport of organs from where they are harvesting. Even the Chinese government themselves admitted that it conducted “forced prevention” (alternative word for “forced abortion”) so to speak, of 3.3 million births between 1979 and 2009. And those who were not aborted were to be separated from their families, and transferred to “orphanages” and “schools” where they are to be raised by the Chinese and taught to be loyal Chinese citizens. Like I said before, all of these actions are genocide. 

Reflecting on your personal experiences, how did you start the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement? What does this movement advocate?

Salih Hudayar: We started off as a small group of like-minded Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkistanis like myself in the summer of 2017. But it wasn’t until June 4th, 2018, that we officially came out and began advocating for:

  • The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (later passed in the 117th Congress)
  • The recognition of East Turkistan as an ‘occupied country’
  • Recognition of the genocide perpetrated by China

Our long-term goal is to restore East Turkistan’s independence because we feel that without our independence, without our political representation, there is no way that we can ensure our human rights, freedom, and our very existence.

Prior to leading these movements, you have previously graduated from Oklahoma State University studying International Relations and Political Science. How did your educational background influence your approach to promoting your cause?

Salih Hudayar: Since I was a child, I wanted to be a military officer. I wanted to have my own army and free my country. My lifetime goal was to join the military. But in 2013, I suffered kidney problems. It ruined my career. At the time, I was doing US Army ROTC and was part of the Oklahoma National Guard. Seeing that, I felt that this obstacle to my military career shouldn’t stop me from fighting for my people. So I had to take a political route. It started off during my senior year in 2016. I wrote a capstone policy proposal called “From Central Asia to the Uyghurs: Refining the American Grand Strategy.” I wrote this by the time Trump was elected as President. The U.S. government was pushing a tough stance on China at the time, so I saw this as an opportunity for the people of East Turkistan. With the help of my professors, I sent my proposal around to government officials and congressional committees. Most of their responses were along the lines of “Which organization are you from?”Although I was a member of the existing East Turkistan Government-in-Exile at the time, it solely focused on the human rights aspect and the Uyghur minorities in China. On the contrary, the National movement focused more on the political and human rights aspects not only on behalf of the Uyghurs in China but also the Kazakhs, Kyrguurs, Tatar, Uzbeks, and the Mongols. 

Have you had any life-threatening situations that have attempted to prevent you from advocating your cause? If so, how were you able to overcome these circumstances?

Salih Hudayar: I had numerous threats online, some threats via phone calls. One particular incident that came to mind was when our house was shot at. Luckily, nobody was home. But we never figured out who shot it. We notified the police and the police said that it was apparently a pellet gun, not a real gun that was fired. Aside from that, most of the death threats came from social media platforms. I just ignored it because they are not going to do anything to me in the U.S. I don’t think they are stupid enough to physically harm me on American soil or anywhere else in the free world. But when it comes to pro-independence activists residing in Central Asia, they are more likely to be assassinated. So I remain careful of wherever I go, what I eat and drink, and stuff like that. Honestly, I have accepted the fact that if anything is going to happen to me, I am not afraid of giving my life if that is necessary for my people. If that is a price I have to pay for my people’s freedom, then it is a price that I am willing to pay.

Several Western leaders have condemned the Uyghur genocide, as recently shown in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics? For the past several years, how has the world confronted this issue?

Salih Hudayar: Recognition is great as we have been seeing. But we have yet to see them take further action on this recognition. The majority of the world leaders, especially those from Muslim-majority countries, have yet to recognize the genocide. Not a single Muslim country has criticized China for its atrocities. In fact, they are doing the complete opposite. Some of them are even working with China to hunt down Uyghurs in their countries and deport them to Xinjiang knowing that they were going to be sent to concentration camps. Although I am grateful for the Western leaders who did recognize it, I want them to actually do something about it beyond mere recognition. Everybody knows it is a problem, everybody knows it is a genocide. There are treaty obligations they adhered to, such as the UN Genocide Conventions. Every year, world leaders, politicians and celebrities always say “Never Again.” When it’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they use ‘Never Again’ in the form of hashtags to commemorate the Jewish killed in the Holocaust. Yet they are allowing this to happen again. 

If that is the case, then whose responsibility is it to provide justice to Uyghurs? What sort of actions would they have to take moving forward?

Salih Hudayar: The UN needs to live up to its promises of “never again” and impose punitive measures against China, whether it be economic. But the UN has become a joke; it is not doing anything. They need to at least investigate the atrocities. China shouldn’t be on the UN Security Council. The whole point of the UN was to prevent another regime like the Nazis from committing these atrocities. The Chinese government and the CCP are the Nazis of today. Most importantly, this is not just about Uyghurs or East Turkestan; it is a precursor of what will happen to others who could fall victim to China. East Turkestan is a buffer state, a barrier containing China from expanding its power to other Central Asian and South Asian countries.

Reflecting on the previous question, do you believe you have hope for your people regardless?

Salih Hudayar: Absolutely. We have to always have hope. Even if it’s just a few, whether they are leaders or average citizens who are willing to speak out across the world. It shows that there is some hope in humanity. And it’s up to the good people who are willing to keep informing the world and raising awareness of this issue until the world decides to act upon it.

What would you want to say to college students who are aware of the Uyghur story but do not know how to take action and spread the word?

Salih Hudayar: The best method is social media, a very important platform for everyone. So I encourage college students to use social media, whether it is Instagram or Facebook, to make simple posts informing about this issue. This is relatively important for young college students who have the technology to connect with influential people. And I think awareness is what’s going to change everything. Just like you said, everyone is aware of what’s going on. But the media is only covering about 10% of the whole story yet don’t go into the depths of the whole fact of why is happening. People ask why is this happening, then people typically respond by saying that China is engaging in genocide as part of Xi Jinping’s plan. This predates Xi Jinping by a long shot. It has been planned for decades. East Turkestan, like any other country, has a history. Yet China is attempting to eradicate any existence of East Turkistan and the identity of Uyghurs. Colonization is the root cause of this. Everyone has this misconception that colonialism ended after the fall of the British Empire and the independence of nations in Asia and Africa during the Cold War. Colonialiation is very much alive to this day.