At first, when a few brave journalists at Radio Free Asia began alerting the world to the terrible events unfolding in western China, China’s Communist rulers denied that anything at all was taking place.
Then, when satellite photos and survivor testimony became too overwhelming, the regime admitted that, yes, there are camps. But not concentration camps! Those are … vocational schools! Pay no attention to the barbed wire and guard towers.
Now, even as it maintains its increasingly threadbare lies, the regime is intensifying the third phase of genocide denial: attacking the truth-tellers.
More than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in China’s brutal camps. Hundreds of mosques and Muslim cemeteries have been destroyed. Muslim women are forcibly sterilized; Uyghur children are taken from their homes and sent to state-run boarding schools. Men can be sent away for wearing a beard or declining to consume pork or alcohol. The Chinese Communists are attempting to wipe out a culture, a way of life, a people.
We know this thanks to Radio Free Asia reporter Gulchehra Hoja and her colleagues, to a few dogged academics and to dozens of survivors and exiles who have bravely given testimony.
At a news conference this month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry attacked many of those witnesses as liars, criminals, terrorists and persons of “bad morality,” as RFA reported.
One of those named as a terrorist was Hoja, 48, who agreed to speak with me Friday. While we were talking, she learned that the regime has listed her father, Abduqeyum Hoja, as a terrorist as well.
“He is 80 years old!” she exclaimed. “A retired archaeologist. What kind of terrorist?”
For that matter, what kind of terrorist is Hoja? She was the young and popular host of a children’s television program on Xinjiang Television, she told me, when she began to understand the discrimination her people were facing.
She visited poor Uyghur children who, even then, had been sent to “mainland China” to be raised away from their culture and religion. “They were separated from their families at such a young age, leading such difficult lives,” she recalled. “I saw desperation in their eyes.”
On a trip to Europe, she was able to roam the Internet unfettered for the first time. She heard uncensored news on the congressionally sponsored Radio Free Asia. She came to believe that, to practice honest journalism, she would have to leave China.
In October 2001 she landed at Dulles International Airport, and the next day she went to work for RFA.
Almost immediately the authorities forced her father to retire and confiscated his passport. Hoja has not been allowed to see her parents since, and in recent years, she could rarely talk with them. China has constructed the world’s most technologically advanced, stifling surveillance state in western China. All calls and movements are monitored.
When Hoja became one of the first people to testify in Congress about the crimes against humanity underway in her homeland, her mother and 23 other relatives were incarcerated. Her brother, younger by a year and a half, was sentenced to three years. All communication with family ceased.
So it came as both a shock and a relief when Chinese officials produced a video of her mother and brother earlier this month.
“We are living pretty well,” her mother says.
“We enjoy freedom of religion and belief,” her brother says, and then goes on to criticize his sister’s “wrong” beliefs.
Hoja surmised that her brother has only recently been released, because his hair is still so short. Neither her brother nor her mother is speaking naturally, she said.
“To see your parent in a propaganda video, it’s a horrible thing,” she said. “But still, compared to my colleagues, I am the luckiest one, because I know they are alive.”
It has been so long, she said, and her mother has endured so much, that her face is “not recognizable.”
“But I can feel her love, we have a special connection, no one can stop a connection between a mother and a daughter.”
More than a half-dozen journalists at Radio Free Asia have had relatives locked up or disappeared as punishment for their journalism. Thanks to a devastating account by Raffi Khatchadourian in the New Yorker this month, no one can doubt what kind of hell they disappear into when they are taken to the camps.
Yet Hoja and her colleagues continue to report because, she told me, “20 million of our people are voiceless over there, and every day under attack.”
The question is whether the rest of us — our democratic governments, our companies doing business in western China, our Beijing 2022 Olympic athletes and sponsors — will honor the sacrifice of the truth-tellers and their families.
“We need real action,” Hoja said. “We need real protection.”