Salih Hudayar (center, with bullhorn), the prime minister of the East Turkistan government-in-exile, leads a protest in Washington, D.C. (Photo/Courtesy)
Salih Hudayar (center, with bullhorn), the prime minister of the East Turkistan government-in-exile, leads a protest in Washington, D.C. (Photo/Courtesy)

Safe in the Bay Area, a Uyghur fears for his family at home

In 2016, Weli cut ties with everyone back home.

“I deleted all of my contacts — my dad, my siblings, everyone,” he told J.

He’d been in the United States since 2009, with plans to return to Xinjiang, a Chinese autonomous region of deserts and mountains that is the home of the Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic minority who have long been persecuted by the Chinese government.

But by 2016, the situation for Uyghurs in their homeland was worsening, and the few reports leaking out pointed to an active genocide.

Weli, a Uyghur in the Bay Area with a degree in mechanical engineering, asked J. not to use his full name for fear of retaliation against family members back in China. Paranoia, perhaps justified, is a familiar feeling for him. As a regular attendee of protests in the Bay Area, he fears for his own safety and the safety of his relatives.

“Families back home can get convicted for many years if we get involved with protests. We can’t even tell the world about what’s happening,” he said.

He estimates there are about 500 Uyghurs in the Bay Area. “It could be more, but some are afraid [and stay hidden]. The Chinese spy network is very wide, and we don’t even know if some people in our community may be part of it,” he said. “Plus, San Francisco is a heavily Chinese area. There has to be some spies.”

When Weli was entering high school in Xinjiang  — or East Turkistan, as advocates for Uyghur independence prefer — he was selected for a supposedly elite program for Uyghur students. “They sent us to Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, densely populated Han Chinese areas,” he recalled. (Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in the country.)

Taking the children of ethnic minorities and sending them to schools far from home with no access to their own culture is a recognized aspect of some genocides, in which the goal is not necessarily the extinction of the targeted group but the eradication of their culture.

The United States, for example, once had an official government policy of sending Native American children to residential boarding schools that attempted to strip them of their indigenous culture — to “civilize” and “Christianize” them.

After he received his undergraduate degree in 2009, Weli went home to Xinjiang for a few weeks before heading to the United States for grad school. That was the last time he was home.

“Since before I came [to the U.S. in 2009], there were people who have been protesting” at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, he said. And now he’s one of them.

“It’s like a tradition. We have [annual] protests to commemorate the Ghulja Massacre,” he said, referring to an incident in which 200 Uyghurs were executed for their participation in a 1997 protest.

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In 2009, another tragedy was added to the protesters’ repertoire: the July 5 massacre, also known as the Ürümqi riots, in which thousands of Uyghurs were detained or killed following a protest that turned violent.

Weli is involved with the East Turkistan independence movement, which is represented on the international stage by the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile. (These groups advocate for the complete independence of the Xinjiang region, while another global Uyghur movement, the World Uyghur Congress, advocates for reform and greater autonomy under continued Chinese rule.)

In an interview with J., Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the government-in-exile, said that Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, have started to become active on the issue.

“We’ve had Jewish people all across the world, especially in the U.K. and Europe, and some here in the U.S. now, become involved,” he said.

Hudayar, 28, lives in the Washington, D.C., area, where he has spoken at a number of synagogues. “We’re truly grateful the Jewish communities have been helpful, despite the fact that we’re majority Muslim.”

Hudayar said the best way Jews can help is to raise awareness and spread the word about what’s happening in East Turkistan. “Hold events, hold a webinar, have a speaking engagement, have victims of the camps and survivors explain what’s going on,” he said. “Once we have the people, once they’re aware of it, then that increases pressure on governments to act.”

In the U.K., for example, Jewish activists played an important role in getting Parliament to officially recognize the ongoing atrocities as a genocide. (The Trump administration made the same official recognition on its final day in office, and the Biden administration has identified the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide as well.)

For Hudayar, who came to the U.S. as a child in 2000 as a political refugee, staying silent or hiding his identity is not an option.

“I have over 100 relatives that have been taken into the camps or killed,” he said. “If I am silent, if we all remain silent, and we are all afraid, then no one is going to speak out, nothing will get done, and the Chinese government will have won.”

Despite Hudayar’s determination, the mood is bleak in the Uyghur diaspora. Bay Area Uyghurs rarely get together for holidays and celebrations, Weli said.

“Recently, this kind of entertainment-style celebration and gatherings stopped because no one is in the mood for entertainment in our community nowadays,” Weli said. “But protests are ongoing as the situation permits.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky