She Survived China's Attempt to Erase Her

“We have been through horrific things, but I’m still proud of being Uyghur," says Tursunay Ziyawudun, a survivor of China's torture camps.


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Tursunay Ziyawudun is part of the Turkic ethnic group known as the Uyghurs. They are largely Muslims who mostly live in the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang. There are about 12.8 million Uyghurs who live there, and human rights groups say that many have become victims of crimes against humanity at the hands of the Chinese government. China is guilty of committing "genocide" against the Uyghurs, according to a British tribunal. There are over 1 million Uyghurs in Chinese re-education camps, where many have reported sexual abuse and even forced sterilization.

Ziyawudun says she spent 11 months in jail for no stated reason. She reports that she was sexually assaulted and tortured during that period.

Communist Party officials have attributed their treatment of the Uyghurs to the fight against terrorism. In 2008, the region suffered multiple terrorist attacks linked to the East Turkestan independence movement, which is a faction within the Uyghur community that wants Xinjiang to separate from China and to form its own state. 

But Human Rights advocates say that terrorism is just an excuse. In reality, these advocates argue, the Chinese government has oppressed the Uyghurs as part of its push for radical conformity. Chinese officials describe the camps as focused on "re-education" and career training. In 2017, when the crackdown intensified, Uyghurs were targeted for wearing head scarfs, for abstaining from drinking alcohol, and for displaying "abnormal behavior" like purchasing dumbbells.

Some attribute the Chinese government's push for conformity to capitalism, and to Beijing's desire to staff its factories, increase production, and surpass the U.S. on the global stage.  But the Chinese Communist Party says its goal is to build a "Modern Socialist Country," not a capitalist one. Capitalism is about diversity and allowing citizens to prosper as individuals. It's the antithesis of coercion and uniformity. Most of the world's most successful companies were founded in the U.S. because of that freedom. Think Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Tesla, and Facebook, which is banned in China. 

China seeks to impose one identity, culture, and language on all of its 1.37 billion people, erasing that which does not conform. When command and control societies seek to impose uniformity—from the policies of Mao to those of Lenin and Stalin—those societies inevitably abuse human rights in the process. 

Ziyawudun says that she felt as if the Chinese government set out to eradicate her culture and ethnicity.

The Chinese government has ever more sophisticated tools of surveillance at its disposal. And it allegedly provides local authorities with lists that detail how to identify extremists. In Ziyawudun's case, she says she was arrested when she returned to Xinjiang from Kazakhstan, where she had been living with her Khazak husband. She had come back to renew her visa.

Ziyawudun says she was released after her husband advocated on her behalf. She made it to the U.S. in 2020 under the protection of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an organization that seeks to promote the rights of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims from Xinjiang.

Today, Ziyawudun lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. She says that her heart aches for her family and for the Uyghurs back home, millions of whom are still being imprisoned, tortured, and surveilled in their most private spaces, including their "living rooms, dining areas, and prayer spaces," according to one report.

Although the U.S. has condemned the mistreatment of the Uyghurs, and government officials are boycotting the Beijing Olympics in protest, America has admitted zero new Uyghur refugees in the last two years. Welcoming foreigners like Ziyawudun is what has allowed the U.S. to avoid becoming a monoculture, and our diversity of thought and experience is the secret to the success of American capitalism. China's erasing of Uyghur culture and its efforts to surveil, imprison, and torture the Uyghur people in pursuit of becoming the leading global superpower isn't just morally abhorrent; it won't work. 

Written and Produced by Noor Greene, edited by Isaac Reese, camera by Isaac Reese, Meredith Bragg, and Mike Koslap. Audio by Ian Keyser. 

Photo Credit: Wanshanchao/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Angelo Cavalli/robertharding/Newscom, Sam Tsang/SCMP/Newscom, © Fine Art Images/Heritage AiWire/Newscom, Kyodo/Newscom, Dickson Lee/ZUMA Press/Newscom, xinhua / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom, akg-images/Newscom, Todd Lee/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom, Willie Siau/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Pictures From History/Newscom, Pictures From History/Newscom, Belinda Jiao/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Music: Life By Kevin Graham, Artlist.