Nury Turkel on the Uyghur Genocide in China

Nury A. Turkel is an attorney, author, foreign policy expert, and advocate with nearly two decades of experience working in the intersection of law, business, government, and the human rights community. He specializes in corporate governance and regulatory compliance, national security, foreign policy, digital authoritarianism, and forced labor and supply chain risk issues. He formerly served as Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom after being appointed as a Commissioner by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in May 2020. He has testified before the US Congress, speaking about Uyghur internment camps and advocating a legislative response to China’s atrocities. His policy recommendations have been incorporated into US law and pending bills relating to Uyghurs and China. As a rights advocate, he has led efforts to raise the profile of the Uyghur cause, previously as the president of the Uyghur American Association and now Chair of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which he co-founded in 2003. He also advised past and present leadership of the World Uyghur Congress. He is a senior fellow at Washington think tank, the Hudson Institute, where he works on US foreign policy and national security issues. He is also a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Turkel is a globally recognized opinion leader and policy expert on matters involving Uyghurs and China. His policy-oriented essays appeared in major publications such as Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Foreign Policy, TIME, Newsweek, and USA Today. He frequently provides commentaries on TV and radio programs, including CNN, BBC, Radio Free Asia, Fox News, PBS, NPR, Al Jazeera, and France 24. In 2020, he was in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and in 2021, he was listed as one of Fortune’s 50 Greatest Leaders. In June 2021, he received the inaugural Notre Dame Prize for Religious Liberty. In September, he was awarded the “Global Soul Award” by Jewish World Watch. He holds a Juris Doctor and a Master of Arts in International Relations degrees from American University. He resides in the Washington, DC, area. In 2022, his memoir, “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs” was published in the US, UK, and Finland.
Arlo Jay Ke '26 interviewed Dr. Nury Turkel on September 11, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Nury Turkel.

In your book, No Escape, you describe in great detail the horrific persecution and clear human rights violations perpetrated against the Uyghur people. Why hasn’t China’s treatment of the Uyghur people provoked a bigger response, for example, in Muslim countries or in China itself?

There are two reasons. For the Western democracies, I think it's fair to say that the economic entanglement and the way that state parties to the Genocide Convention avoid responsibility. The economic relationship with Europe is so strong, so deep, even during the pandemic, you may remember that some prime ministers were forced to go to the airport to receive Chinese government-provided masks and vaccines. So that's just one piece, and the other concern is that the ongoing Uyghur genocide has global critical supply chain connection. Some countries in Europe, such as Germany, France, and Italy, particularly have been implicated because of the active trade relationship that the European Union has with China. And then, with the Muslim countries, it's perplexing. I used to say it's perplexing, but it's unconscionable that these Muslim countries, for the most part, not only failed to condemn the Chinese for the ongoing Uyghur genocide that is targeting Uyghur Muslims, or calling Uyghur believers in Islam somebody who has mental illness. The anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim sentiment being expressed by the Chinese government through policy statements, social media postings, and propaganda materials is so offensive, and yet they did not shock the conscience of Muslim leaders around the world. There are three possible reasons why they have not been doing something morally required in defense of their religion. One is the way that the Chinese portray this to these countries, setting this as a precondition for a normal course of diplomatic engagement. The Chinese have been telling the Middle Eastern countries, specifically Muslim majority countries, that this is something that the United States cooked up. There's no such thing as genocide. This is one of the US’s strategies to hamper China’s rise, tarnish China’s image, creating this false narrative. No one is at least publicly pushing back, you know, we are talking about countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. And that's one narrative. And the second reason is that these human rights and religious freedom issues in China have been considered since 2014 as a Chinese national security concern. Whereas in western capitals, this is kind of treated as a second or third tier issue in foreign policy priorities. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping gets on the phone and pressures countries not to do certain things and to do certain things that are in line with their objectives. And none of that has happened on our part. The level at which the Chinese leadership sees the issue is much more serious than how we see it in the Western liberal democracies. And then the third reason I believe is China's attempts to buy silence through economic coercion, through the Belt and Road Initiative, through international organizations. And then finally, and this is the easiest way to explain that none of these countries are Jeffersonian democracies. The media is controlled by these dictators or authoritarian figures. The people don't have a willingness to speak out because if they speak out, they will be endangering their livelihood and well-being. So those are the possible reasons. As I said, it's unconscionable. You know, I've been condemning the Muslim leaders like the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Solman or Imran Khan, the former Pakistani Prime Minister. Except for a few countries like Turkey, Albania, and Kosovo, everyone is pretty much doing Beijing's bidding.

The CCP has recently expanded tourist initiatives in the Xinjiang region despite the ongoing atrocities, celebrating a false Uyghur identity and narrative. What impact does state-sponsored tourism have on the Uyghur community?

This is part of China's desperate attempt to change the narrative by portraying a rosy picture. During the height of Western criticism, specifically from 2018 all the way to the pandemic period, China brought in Western journalists only to show what they wanted to show, and then when the journalists started reporting things that the Chinese did not want them to report, they were expelled. China expelled several high-profile journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other US media organization. And then they brought in so-called journalists or diplomats from friendly governments that were majority Muslim. That effort also did not really work. What they are trying to do now is to turn that hellhole, open air prison, as described by the United States government, into a kind of happy minority optics. And they're also changing their messaging strategy, by showcasing the things that used to be banned, like you know, social gatherings, weddings, and restaurants. And now, all of a sudden, when you go to YouTube, you'll see a lot of things that you have not seen in the past two, three years. They are kind of unleashing all of the positive things that they think will help to change the narrative. So essentially saying, look, what are you talking about? Does it look like a genocide? Look at these colorful clothes, happy people dining at fancy restaurants, dancing, singing, they have this ridiculous lifestyle where they go to the street to dance. So dancing is a way that they show that you have they are respecting human rights. So that's how they can try to normalize, but they should not underestimate the intelligence and the ability of those who live in free societies to do their own due diligence, to look at the right type of information to make up their minds. They can try to twist it, and they can lie, but that does not make it true.

Between economic incentives and opaque supply chains, boycotting products made from forced labor in Xinjiang has proven difficult. However, in 2021 President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law to address this issue, a bill you strongly supported. How successful do you believe this Act has been? Should other countries adopt this Act or take a different approach? 

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is arguably the strongest legislative mandate that Congress has put in place since China joined the WTO to address some of the lingering issues. We already have an existing law that bans slave labor products. But what has not reached the conscience of American consumers is that more than 80 global brands have been using suppliers that have been employing forced labor, forcing Uyghurs to perform slave labor in broad daylight in the 21st century. In response to this massive global supply chain crisis, the United States government acted by putting in place this powerful legal tool. But because of the magnitude, scale, and scope of the issues that we are dealing with, this has not really had the type of result that we wanted. It's been only a year since this law went into effect or started being enforced. But when you look at the broader picture, you see already that companies are starting to act. Just a couple of days ago, HP made an announcement that they're moving out. Apple is moving 10% of its production line over to India. And today, when you look at the labeling of those companies that have been implicated, you can see labels such as Made in Mexico, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. The fact that President Biden has gone to India and Vietnam, I think, will give confidence to American multinational corporations or global brands that have been implicated in forced labor practices and will look for a country that does not harass business leaders, force them to sign an unfair trade agreement, and importantly, don't enslave their own population. And then the one difficulty is this. The multinational corporations that have been doing business in China, in their own worldview successfully, and have also been telling American consumers that they figured out how to do business in China, have been squeezed. When H&M and Nike made a pledge that they would not use Xinjiang suppliers, there was a state-sponsored sanction against them, they put even in one instance most famously a Uyghur movie star to condemn and Nike and H&M. So, because their retaliatory actions could happen to any companies, American businesses have not made a public announcement about the remedial measures that they have taken. But I do know for a fact that some companies are already taking certain steps to ensure that human rights through business due diligence are intact. And they are looking into questionable suppliers and terminating relationships with some of them. That's something that has been very difficult for businesses, but that doesn't mean that they should not fully comply. Compliance should not be a box checking exercise. Compliance should be based on a moral obligation and legal obligation. The legal and reputational investment risks for businesses are real, this is why Congress passed this bipartisan law that is helping to clean up the global supply chain, eradicating forced labor products from the global supply chain. At the end of the day, American people need to look at if the solar panels that they're putting on their roof are worth it. Because you know you can claim that you feel great that you are conserving energy and protecting the planet, but you cannot overlook the fact that those solar panels and EV batteries are made with slave labor. The next time when you buy a cotton shirt, PPE, beauty products, or computer components, you can be almost certain that those purchases that you made, and this is supported with documented evidence and reports, that they have been made with slave labor. It's incumbent upon us to make sure as consumers that we don't become complicit in modern day slavery. At the same time, the investors should do soul searching. Is this right or is it unconscionable for American businesses to underwrite and invest in tech genocide in China.

You have devoted your career to raising awareness and advocating for the Uyghur community. In your experience, what strategies have been most effective in communicating the severity of the crisis and advocating for a response from the U.S. government?

I would start with public education, especially when you're dealing with giant entities that the Chinese have, such as the Minister of Public Security, the United Front Work departments, and also the Chinese Ministry of State Security. They have enough resources, manpower and money, to engage in transnational repression, engage in harassment of thought leaders, opinion leaders, academics, and pressure Hollywood not to make any movies. These kinds of malign activities need to be exposed through personal stories. I think one of the successes that the Uyghur movement relied on is storytelling, educating the American public. I think it has worked, you know, that people respond to stories, not as much to statistics. Just using these examples, telling American people why they should be concerned. And now it's specifically because of the Uyghur people, because of the Hong Kong people, maybe potentially the Taiwanese people. Telling the American people, educating them about what this regime is capable of and what we're dealing with as a society, as a civilization, if you will, is important. And the second thing is that building bipartisan support and momentum has been extremely effective.  But when you deal with this kind of broader national security concern, building a bipartisan consensus is the key. The Uyghur movement in the United States has a really good track record; they were able to pass two laws, and there are a few more being introduced under consideration in the United States Congress. But the ones that have been passed and become law or enacted already required zero monetary investment. It's all storytelling, individual lobbying, building bipartisan consensus, essentially. We're talking about unanimous consent on the Uyghur bills in the United States Senate. And then over 400 votes in the House of Representatives, which is almost unbelievable, an incredible accomplishment. So, public education and a bipartisan consensus. And finally, just talking about human rights every day may not be that appealing to people. Because you don't want to have people to say, oh, here comes another human rights crisis. And another one, and another one. I've been hearing about the abuses in Middle East and in Asia and Africa, in even Europe. There's a fatigue. In order to overcome that challenge, you have to link it to issues that matter to average people, such as the supply chain crisis and investment issues, free speech, because if the Chinese can pressure American academics not to write, not to speak on the ghastly human rights abuses in China, then this is not America. Uyghur human rights, or any human rights issues can be free speech issues in the United States. Committing this kind of genocide based on somebody's religion is a value concern for the United States and American people, because religious freedom is one of our first civil rights. Linking the issue to other issues that are close to the heart of American people is very effective.

What other steps can the US and the international community take to support the Uyghur community?

Two things need to be done. One, since we have US policy on the Uyghur genocide and Uyghur issues, at least in two successive administrations, continuance, carrying it out, we need to stay on the course. A human rights-centric foreign policy not only helps us,but also strengthens our global leadership, because that's our strength.. Our values are our biggest weapon. So coherent policy implementation is something that policymakers need to keep in mind. The second thing is that we should not treat issues like this in the context of transactional negotiation. For example, if the Chinese said you need to stop talking about the so-called Uyghur genocide in order for John Kerry to engage with his counterpart on climate crisis. That is a mistake. If you tone down just because China is giving you a green light that they will be willing to talk to you about the climate crisis, then we have a problem. Because that's not how it works in China. Chinese leaders do what is good for the party and good for the leadership. It's not doing things out of concern or based on the US demand. This is not something that they're accustomed to do. We need to be very clear. You know, we have only one planet. We also need to have a human being who can enjoy this planet that has been conserved or preserved. We need to tell whoever sets up that kind of condition, specifically the Chinese, that, you know, look, we're Americans, we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, we can fight ecocide and genocide the same time. So that's another thing. And then thirdly, I think the United States is stronger, and it's been proven time and time again, when we have a strong multilateral position. That's the nightmare for the Chinese leadership. China doesn't have an ally, except maybe for North Korea. We have a lot of them, more than three dozen treaty allies. So that to me is something that has not been fully utilized. And then finally, the American public needs to be more vocal, because at the end of the day, this is about our future. If the Chinese are using Uyghur lives for biomedical research, and using Uyghur lives for the advancement of AI, machine learning, that potentially can be used against us. It could be a disruptive force for the democratic norm around the world. With that consideration, I don't think that anyone who cares about the future can treat this as an ignorable issue.

Arlo Jay '26Student Journalist

ChiralJon, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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