Ep. 8: Uyghur Women Speaking Out

China Books

May 7 2024 • 51 mins

Genocide is not a word thrown around lightly by the U.S. government, but it uses that term to describe the Chinese government’s ongoing assaults on Uyghurs’ distinct culture, identity, rights, and freedom in China’s far western region of Xinjiang.

China's government has long had an uneasy relationship with Uyghurs’ distinct Turkic Muslim identity, and has tried in various ways over time to control them, reduce and dilute their population, and make them assimilate.

But lately, it’s gotten much worse. Within the past decade, about a million Uyghurs – almost one in 10 – were sent to reeducation camps. Under international pressure, the PRC says it closed the camps in 2019, because the "trainees" graduated. But it  transferred many of the Uyghurs in the camps to prison or forced labor, sending some to other provinces as part of a policy meant to reduce the concentration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  Those still in Xinjiang are under constant high-tech surveillance, with some forced to let security personnel live in their homes, to better indoctrinate and surveil them.

In the midst of all this, a few Uyghur women in exile have proven especially effective at speaking out on their people’s plight, and advocating for international action . This episode is a conversation with two of them, about  their experiences growing up Uyghur in  China, going into exile in the United States, and becoming advocates for Uyghur rights.

Gulchehra Hoja is the author of A Stone is Most Precious Where It Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope and Survival, named by The New Yorker as a best book of 2023. An award-winning Uyghur American journalist who has worked with Radio Free Asia since 2001, she grew up in Urumqi, studied Uyghur language and literature and, working for state-run Xinjiang TV, created and hosted China’s first Uyghur language children’s television program for five years.


Jewher Ilham’s two memoirs, Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father(2015) and Because I Have To: The Path to Survival, The Uyghur Struggle(2022), tell the story of how a Uyghur teenager who grew up in Beijing as the daughter of prominent economics professor and Uyghur rights advocate Ilham Tohti, went into exile in the United States and became an effective advocate for her father’s release from a life sentence in prison in China. She now also works with the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C. as forced labor project coordinator and spokesperson for the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor.

The China Books podcast is hosted and produced by Mary Kay Magistad, a former award-winning China correspondent for NPR and PRI/BBC's The World, now a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This podcast is a companion of the China Books Review, which offers incisive essays, interviews, and reviews on all things China books-related. Co-publishers are Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and The Wire China, co-founded by David Barboza, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times China correspondent. The Review's editor is Alec Ash, who can be reached at editor@chinabooksreview.com.