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'No Escape' details the history of Uyghurs in China up to their modern-day oppression


Until the early 20th century, Nury Turkel points out in his new book, the people we know now as Uyghurs often referred to themselves simply as yerlik (ph), meaning locals, people who had just always been around. Their Central Asia home along the old Silk Road in the area of what is now Mongolia, northwest China and eastern Kazakhstan is full of mountains and deserts, cotton fields and pastures. It is also host now to sprawling Chinese prison camps and brutal oppression aided by artificial intelligence.

Nury Turkel is an attorney serving on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. His book is called "No Escape," and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NURY TURKEL: Thank you very much for having me.

RASCOE: Let's talk very specifically about what is going on in these camps and the stories that you laid out. I should be clear for our audience that their experience involves torture, sexual abuse. So I do want to give that warning. One woman was in a room so small with, like, 40 other women, having to sleep, only able to go to the bathroom maybe two times a day, not seeing sunlight. Can you talk a bit about that?

TURKEL: The stories are simply disturbing. It shocks the conscience. They are forcing Uyghur women that are the source of education for Uyghur kids when it comes to values, religious beliefs, manners, even, to go through this transformation process, which is a code word for human re-engineering. So the food deprivation, unsanitary conditions, mental torture, even potential death were something pretty common based on my interviews with the camp survivors. What is not being reported is the sexual violence, the forced sterilization, even forcing middle-aged women to go through this brutal process. And the other thing that really, really strikes me is the fact that even some of them, after returning home, were subject to this homestay program.

RASCOE: Well, yeah. Let me ask you about that, because the Chinese are actually sending people, Chinese people, to stay in Uyghur homes who come and live in your house and spy on you. Like, talk more about that program, because that was really shocking.

TURKEL: Essentially, what the Chinese government has been doing is sending cadres to Uyghur homes, particularly those families that don't have a male household leader. What they do is just come in and eat and sleep uninvited in their bedroom. So essentially, the Uyghurs are living in an open-air prison. Even those who are not in the camp, even at your private home, you don't have a type of a life that normal people would have otherwise.

RASCOE: Another part that you talked about in your book is there were prisoners who are forced to renounce their faith, their Islamic faith, and to say that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is their only god.

TURKEL: To the Communist Party, Islam and Christianity are foreign religion that comes with kind of a sense of community, that you stick together. That can be perceived as a threat to the regime. When you have a spiritual life, the Chinese regime perceive that as a sign of disloyalty. Today, if you go to the place of worship in China, whether it be church or mosque or temple, you see Xi Jinping's giant portrait. In Islam, looking at the picture to perform any type of rituals are not permitted. And this is something that they also force the detainees to go through daily at - in those camps. They have forced indoctrination programs. We have seen images during the holy month of Ramadan, Uyghur women and men are dragged to public square, participating in beer drinking competition or contest.

RASCOE: There was this point - and you grew up during some of that time - where there was some freedom for the Uyghurs, but that seemed to change after September 11.

TURKEL: I don't know if it's fortunate or a misfortune. I would - I have lived through all of it. The way that I was brought to this world during the height of the Cultural Revolution, where my young mother was detained and gave birth to me while she was physically injured and my father was performing forced labor...

RASCOE: And you were born in a camp. You were born in a reeducation camp, right?

TURKEL: Exactly. And during my high school, middle school years, I've seen some loosening up in Chinese government's approach to the Uyghur people. And then after 9/11, the Uyghur people had to deal with a completely different type of environment, where the Chinese authorities claim that China is also a victim of global terrorism, but any international community bears some responsibility by listening to that rhetoric, even to this day.

RASCOE: I did want to ask you about artificial intelligence, because I think a lot of Americans would be blown away by - they are getting biometrics. So they have Uyghurs, all of them, coming in, taking hair samples, even the way that they walk, cataloguing it so that they would be able to track them if they see them walking, and the way that they talk, having them read passages for 45 minutes so that they will have voice recognition on them. Can you talk a bit about how artificial intelligence and these apps are being used as a part of this kind of open-air prison?

TURKEL: The Chinese government have developed - has developed - tested and implemented some of the most intrusive form of surveillance. We have already had serious issues, a rise of authoritarianism and dictatorship, a pushback against democratic values and freedom around the world, led by people like Xi Jinping and Putin. And this particular technological tools that Xi Jinping's China has has already been spreading around the world. It's metastasizing. So what we should look at at this point is a new type of governance stemming from China. It may pose various types of threats to the world order.

RASCOE: That's Nury Turkel. His new book is called "No Escape." Thank you so very much.

TURKEL: Thank you very much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.