China is engaged in a systematic campaign of “human reengineering” targeting its Uyghur Muslim population, Nury Turkel, an Uyghur American attorney and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom tells me in the latest episode of our flagship global affairs podcast, The Pivot.

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The idea of “re-education through labor” (laojiao) has been a feature of the People’s Republic of China going back to the era of Mao Zedong. Turkel himself was born in a re-education camp during the height of the Cultural Revolution — a particularly tyrannical period in Chinese history. Five decades later, he finds his community, the Uyghurs — a Turkic people who are predominantly Muslim — subjected to what he calls “re-education on steroids.”

“Like the counter-revolutionaries of old, Uyghurs and other Muslims are now naturalised as abnormal, sick and dangerous, thus requiring invasive cultural and political ‘surgery’ to cure their ‘disease’. This radical treatment has serious and hazardous implications for Chinese society under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.”

James Leibold

Much like their counterparts in many other authoritarian regimes, Chinese officials describe their harsh tactics as a campaign against separatism and terrorism.

But Turkel says this is ultimately an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to forcibly assimilate the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others into what it calls the “Zhonghua minzu” or “Chinese nation” as part of a “civilizing project.”

A Total War On the Uyghurs

Beijing has waged an invasion of the Uyghur mind, household, social networks, and electronic devices. Uyghurs inside and outside the camps reside in a 21st-century panopticon, surveilled by the Chinese state and imprisoned for the slightest signs of religious piety. People of faith, like the Uyghur Muslims, are being forced to choose between fealty to the Almighty and total loyalty to China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping.

More than a million Uyghur Muslims have been placed in re-education camps and other detention sites. Uyghur children have been abducted and placed into orphanages or the households of strangers.

Many observers have described this as a campaign of genocide. Turkel agrees. Statements by Chinese officials — including a call by Maisumujian Maimuer to “break their lineage” and “break their roots” — very much indicate genocidal intent.

The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are ethnic and religious outliers in China whose historic homelands are now part of the periphery of a rising superpower. Their fates are in many ways intertwined.

Chen Quanguo, the CCP secretary in Tibet from 2011 to 2016 applied policies honed there — like a neighborhood surveillance system — in Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s name for the region encompassing the Uyghur homeland.

Turkel says the relationship is multidirectional and that the homelands of the Uyghurs and Tibetans “have been testing grounds for one another.” The CCP “implements one policy in one area” and then tries them in the other.

Uyghur Forced Labor

The persecution of the Uyghurs isn’t simply a horrible thing happening in a remote part of the world. Its byproducts could be covering your body, transporting you to work, or on your dinner plate.

That’s because of two reasons: one, China is the world’s largest trading country and the “factory to the world;” and two, many Uyghurs have been shifted in recent years out of the camps into forced labor sites.

Xinjiang, in part due to massive state subsidies, is a major world producer of aluminum, cotton, tomatoes, and polysilicon. So, depending on where you live, there’s a chance the body of your car, the t-shirt you wear to the gym, the ketchup in your burger, or the solar panels that power your home are the byproducts of what Turkel calls a “race-based slavery program.” Experts appointed by the United Nations assessed in 2022 that some Uyghurs and Tibetans work in conditions that “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity.”

A 2020 study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) identified 82 Chinese and foreign companies — including Apple, Nike, and Volkswagen — that have been “potentially directly or indirectly benefitting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labor transfer programs.” Volkswagen has a joint venture with Chinese carmaker SAIC, which has a facility in Xinjiang.

Muji, a company not mentioned in the ASPI report, has also been potentially exposed to Uyghur forced labor. In 2021, Muji publicly advertised its use of cotton from Xinjiang.

The United States has taken a lead role in the effort to combat Uyghur forced labor. In 2021, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which bars the import of any goods manufactured in whole or in part from Xinjiang. It has achieved some considerable success: U.S. Customs detained more than $1.3 billion in products at the border in the legislation’s first year of enforcement, writes Marti Flacks, formerly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Last month, thousands of imported Audi, Bentley, and Porsche vehicles were held at the U.S. border because they potentially used a part made by Uyghur forced labor. (All three are brands of the Volkswagen Group.)

But many shipments, including direct-to-consumer orders dispatched by retailers Shein and Temu, fall below the monetary threshold for inspection and there have been calls to expand the range of shipments that can be vetted by the CBP.

Episode Description

Uyghur activist Nury Turkel (@nuryturkel) speaks with host Arif Rafiq on China’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslims; the systems of coercion, surveillance, and collective punishment directed at the Uyghurs; and how you, the listener, may be unknowingly consuming products made in part through forced Uyghur labor.

Guest Bio

(Image Credit: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

Nury Turkel is an Uyghur American attorney, author, foreign policy expert, and human rights advocate. He is a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and previously served as chair of the body.

Turkel is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a long-time leader and advisor to Uyghur diaspora groups.

His book, “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs,” not only tells his life story, beginning with his birth in a Chinese re-education camp in 1970, but also the stories of many Uyghurs who have suffered in today’s re-education camps and have managed to escape China since their release.


Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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