NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: (In progress) Foreign Press Center. I’m the director, Liz Detmeister. Today’s briefing is on the record. It’ll be livestreamed and transcribed. Today we will have a briefing from Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell and Uighur rights activist Nury Turkel. They’re joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor Scott Busby. Assistant Secretary Stilwell and Mr. Turkel will make remarks, then you will have a chance to ask questions. I ask you to silence your cell phones, and with that, I turn the floor over to you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for coming. I see some old friends and look forward to talking with the rest of you. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to offer some prepared thoughts just so I get the language right.
As many of you know, Deputy Secretary Sullivan and his counterparts from Canada, UK, Netherlands, and Germany hosted a panel discussion earlier today on the margins of the UN General Assembly regarding the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. We heard from a survivor of a Xinjiang internment camp, from individuals with family members detained or otherwise harassed there, and from a representative from the United Nations. I would like to recognize the immense courage that Nury Turkel and other panelists displayed today. If not for their bravery in sharing these deeply painful experiences, the world may never know the truth about China – Chinese Government’s repression campaign against the Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, as well as other Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
According to U.S. estimates and those of independent organizations, China has detained more than 1 million individuals in internment camps since April 2017. Individuals are detained arbitrarily for simple expressions of cultural and religious identity – for example, possessing books on Islam and Uighur culture, reciting the Quran at a funeral, or even wearing religious attire.
China claims that these sprawling camps with barbed wire and guard towers are humane job training centers. This is simply false. The testimonies we heard today clearly show the reality of China’s widespread human rights violations and abuses. The panelists have reported that detainees may be subjected to physical and psychological torture, intense political indoctrination, and forced labor. Detainees include medical doctors, academics, businesspeople, and professionals, as well as young children and the elderly, none of whom need job training.
And China’s campaign of repression extends far beyond the walls of these camps. Ubiquitous security personnel and massive, high-tech surveillance systems have turned Xinjiang into a police state. Uighur families are forced to allow Chinese officials to stay in their homes in an effort to prevent observance of Islamic practices and strengthen controls on cultural and religious expression. Parents are forbidden from teaching Islam to their children. Students are punished for praying or fasting during Ramadan. Men’s beards are forcibly shaved, women’s hijabs are removed, numerous mosques have been destroyed. We have heard credible reports that Muslims are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol or face punishment.
The Chinese Government claims these policies are meant to tackle what it calls “religious extremism.” In fact, these repressive policies are likely to fuel the very resentment, recruitment, and radicalization to violence that Beijing claims to oppose. Nor does this campaign end at China’s borders. Chinese officials coerce Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities to return to Xinjiang from abroad and pressure third countries to forcibly return asylum seekers to China. As we heard today, China harasses citizens of other countries, including American citizens, with relatives in Xinjiang, presenting them with heartbreaking choice: keep silent about the horrific abuses or let your friends and family in Xinjiang suffer the consequences.
It is important to note much of what we know about the crisis in Xinjiang does not originate from U.S. Government reporting. Just late last week we saw very alarming video footage on social media showing what appeared to be mass detentions in Xinjiang. It is clearly – certainly very disturbing footage that raises troubling questions. We know what we know thanks to the testimonies of survivors and their family members. It is from news outlets around the world – Al Jazeera, UAE’s The National, as well as Nikkei Asian Review, BBC Financial Times. Many of you are familiar with the great work done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Radio Free Asia. It is from think tanks like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
This is far from an exhaustive list. Many other academics and human rights groups have documented these stories, shining light on the modern-day horrors and debunking Chinese state propaganda. Here at the UN, we reaffirm the principle that a government’s purpose is to protect the unalienable rights of its people. We iterate – reiterate our call for China to end its counterproductive policies that repress its own people.
But the U.S. voice alone is not enough. The international community must join in pressing China to end this campaign of repression. Under the UN Charter, the purpose of the United Nations include promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all. It is incumbent on all UN member-states and the UN itself to live up to the institution’s founding principles. We must act now. We commend those member-states who have already spoken out, and we call on others to do so. We must continue to call on China to reverse its highly repressive policies in Xinjiang. History will judge each of us on how we respond.
I would now like to invite Mr. Nury Turkel to offer some remarks.
MR TURKEL: Thank you, Mr. Assistant Secretary. Thank you very much for being here. As a Uighur American, I would like to express my gratitude for your interest to cover the horrific situation in the Uighurs’ homeland.
The Chinese Government is denying that it violates human rights in the Uighur region, but it’s clearly behaving as if it has something to hide. It is determined to prevent information from getting out by criminalizing Uighurs’ contact with the outside world and by tightly restricting access to media and international organizations. It is also conducting campaign to – campaign of intimidation and harassment to Uighurs overseas, including right here in New York City, mostly through threats of detention aimed at their relatives in China. Still, more and more are speaking out as it becomes clear that their relatives are not being released and the campaign is intent to permanently delete the Uighur identity, a process that experts call reengineering.
The Chinese Government’s intention is very clear. They want to deprogram the Uighurs, a centuries-old ethno-national identity, and erase their religion, their language, tradition, their arts and culture, and most importantly their way of life. The government is also pouring enormous resources into disguising the nature of its ongoing crackdown in the Uighur region. It has invented – it has invited delegations from friendly countries to staged tours of camps in an attempt to explain them away as re-education camps or vocational training centers for extremists. And recently, they ridiculously even called those camps as boarding schools. Let us be clear: There’s an abundant evidence of indiscriminate targeting of Uighurs just for being Uighur. As Jewher Ilham pointed out yesterday, Uighurs being Uighurs in of itself is a crime in China.
Beyond the testimony of victims who have managed to reach safety, the evidence includes Chinese Government’s policy statements hiring construction bids for the campaign – for the camps and extensive satellite imagery. The brutal campaign of repression in the Uighurs’ homeland should concern everyone around the world. It is causing immense human suffering, but it is also ominous sign of – signs of CCP’s oppressive turn. The question is quite simple: What kind of future do we want for our children? Are we going to be okay with China’s surveillance state not only being tested and implemented, but also in the process of being exported to other countries?
It can no longer be seriously argued that increasing prosperity in – leading to greater respect for human rights and rule of law in China. The establishment of the surveillance state in the Uighur region has been highly profitable for China’s tech companies that are already selling surveillance packages around the world to governments that use them to suppress critical voices. Treatment of the Uighurs is not a marginal issue, but one that goes to the heart of the judgment that must be made by every nation. Can business as usual continue with a country conducting a 21st century cultural extermination campaign?
With that, I’d like to point out that our organization documented 435 individuals who have disappeared. They belong to the academia, journalism, art, and also, most importantly, they are the guardian of Uighur cultural and ethnic heritage. As we speak, a well-known scholar by the name Tashpolat Teyip is under immense – imminent danger of being executed. Based on leaked information, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017.
There are many other Uighurs scholars, thought leaders, state performers, athletes, business leaders, religious leaders have been locked up in the modern-day concentration camp that needs your attention and worldwide condemnation. Both has been too small for us to take on China to fix this problem, so we asked the nations around the world that cherish human liberty, rule of law, democracy to join the effort led by the United States Government.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I’d also like to acknowledge Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, who’s here from the human rights division in DRL, so – subject to your questions.
MODERATOR: So we open the floor for questions. If you would start by identifying your name and outlet, that would be great.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Shun Ishibe with NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation. So Mr. Turkel, so the U.S. Senate passed the act – the Uighur Human Acts – Human Rights Act. So what’s your view on this at the moment?
And Secretary Stilwell, do you have any opportunity to directly talk to Chinese officials during this UNGA? And how do you approach to Chinese officials with regards to this problem?
MR TURKEL: Thank you for the question. The United States Congress has been actively considering two pieces of legislation since late last year. It’s called the Rubio-Smith bill. It has been receiving bipartisan support. The Senate version has been recently passed, so the House version is in the process of being merged with another Uighur bill. So once it’s done, this will go through the rest of the process quite quickly.
What is significant about this bill? It is the first time in any Western capital or any Western legislative body ever considered a legislative mandate to address Uighur human rights. So it’s historic and also it’s timely, even though it’s taking a little bit longer to go through the process. We Uighur Americans are very pleased that our government, our Congress, is taking up the issue on bipartisan support. Some policy experts stated in public that not many issues that members of Congress agrees these days except for Uighur human rights concern. So we urge the Congress to finish up the rest of the work and send the bill to the President’s desk as soon as possible.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: On your second question, my job is to manage relations in East Asia Pacific to include Japan, obviously China as well, and so you have to understand that the contents of those discussions, the details of those discussions, need to remain confidential, but this has been an ongoing conversation between our counterparts and us.
QUESTION: Yeah, Alim Seytoff from Radio Free Asia, and thank you for mentioning Radio Free Asia earlier. My question is: What is the Chinese Government’s response to your concerns, to the U.S. concerns? Are they continuing to say, then, they are just vocational training facilities, in spite of the mounting evidence that they’re not?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: The response varies. We were looking at coverage from the event, and the first response is don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. That’s one response. The other is that – a repeat of what Nury mentioned, is that this is simply vocational, it’s humane, and it’s necessary. The language used a lot of times is an interesting definition of the term “human rights.” I believe the UN and certainly the U.S. defines human rights as universal individual rights. And so they have a slightly different approach to that. I would encourage you to ask your Chinese counterparts their response.
QUESTION: I have two questions for the assistant secretary.
MODERATOR: Can you identify your name and outlet?
QUESTION: I’m sorry. Ben Marks with NHK Japan Broadcasting. The first is not with China but the current Japan-South Korea row that’s going on, have you had a chance to meet with your counterparts during UNGA to discuss this? And then the second question is: We’ve heard repeatedly the U.S. have strong language against China for their treatment of Uighurs, but are you considering any concrete actions to take to pressure China to try and change their behavior?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: So the first question, not really related to the topic at hand today, but again as I think I mentioned earlier, because action is not visible in public doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And as you can imagine, watching two key allies work through this problem and get – our interest is to get them through this as soon as possible. On the other question, it goes back to – similar to the first answer, is that just because you don’t things doesn’t mean we’re not doing things. And so we’ve been actively involved in this.
The event today I think is – demonstrates the approach that we’re taking, which is to raise the temperature of the water vice come in all at once, give the Chinese Government, the Communist Party the chance to reform and address this issue rather than go straight to the – the President really wants to work with the Chinese here, both in terms of trade and a number of other areas. And so yes, there’s been lots of action, and yes, it’s been increasing in severity, this being the most recent. Turn that back to – there were – more than 30 countries arrived, or came today to support and to hear Nury’s story and the story of others, and that’s a great testament to the international attention this is getting. So that’s the next step in this, and we’d like to see others participate and share in this concern vocally.
QUESTION: One question for you, assistant secretary, and one question for you.
MODERATOR: Can you state your name and outlet?
QUESTION: Sorry. Sarah DiLorenzo, Associated Press. I’m wondering “why now?” a little bit. This is – there are tons of – there are a few events today that you’re doing, and you’re clearly raising the temperature, as you said. Is it – are things getting worse or is it you just decided enough is enough and it’s the time to do it? I don’t know if it’s more on the U.S. side that you’ve decided, or things or worse in Xinjiang, and that’s the motivating factor.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: There’s been a – this has been growing over time. It’s been building. If you remember, there was a letter signed by 22 other countries acknowledging this issue, and then that was a step. The fact that we’re all here in New York for this very important week, it just made sense that – given all the people who are already here, we can get a – vice a letter, we can get a physical participation, which again makes a very clear statement.
QUESTION: But this is an issue that’s been going on for years.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, so – why not last year? I’m just wondering, like, if there’s anything more to say about the timing, if this is a crucial moment or —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: No, I mean, our – the point I made earlier is that we’ve been raising it and hoping that they would understand the severity of the problem and our – our very sincere interest in helping the minority group retain its dignity and its human rights, and asking the Chinese Government to recognize that and to reverse course. And this is the next step.
QUESTION: And then my question for you: You referenced just now and then also at the event preceding this, pressure that Uighur Americans or Uighurs living in the U.S. are feeling. Could you talk a little bit more about that, give some specific examples of what you’re referring to?
MR TURKEL: My organization just released a research report, includes personal accounts directly, indirectly approached by the Chinese, harassed. So there are three common things that they have been doing. One is directly harass the victim’s family to stay quiet so that the ongoing oppression will go on unnoticed, where they can at least continue to deny the existence of their brutal policies.
And then the second method is to put their family members in front of a video chat or phone calls to use them as a way to send a message. So you cannot talk about it and you cannot participate in political activities. The Uighur American community is a vibrant community, politically a very active community, very strategic in their approaching of various issues, so they – to the Chinese Government’s disadvantage. That is become a concern for them, so they use that to kind of minimize the political effect in the society.
And then third, they are encouraging certain Uighur individuals to either join the political organizations or take up a leadership role, or spy on others. So they have been using different methods, but the first one is the most concerning one. That is causing some health issues for Uighur American community. The professional life have been disrupted. I – I would be dishonest to tell that I’ve been having a normal professional life. It’s hard to concentration anything – concentrate on anything that we’re doing.
QUESTION: And this pressure – someone comes and knocks on your door here in the U.S., or someone calls you? How exactly does this work?
MR TURKEL: Based on the witness testimonies that compiled and include in our report, most of them comes through Chinese WeChat, text messages, phone calls.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Sorry, can I just pile on there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: The other intersecting interest here is the U.S. focus here at UNGA 74 has been religious freedom. We had the religious freedom event at the State Department a month ago, and then this is the follow-on to that, so all kind of merging.
MODERATOR: We had a question in the back.
QUESTION: Carol with WallStreetTV.com. I guess this questions both – to both of you guys. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act just passed on September 11th. But there are other religious group in Xinjiang that’s closer under a religious pressure. By passing this act, do you think other religious groups in Xinjiang are being encouraged to have more – to have your voice heard on the international platform? Then also, the Senate is also pushing the Hong Kong Democracy and Freedom Act. So having the Uyghur Human Rights and Policy Act passed, do you think there will be more momentum for this bill?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: You want to comment on the —
MR TURKEL: Yes, we were very pleased with the quick action by the United States Congress to address the situation in Hong Kong through this bill. We’re hoping that the Uighur bill, the UHRP Act, should also go through relatively quicker. Uighur people are getting very anxious, especially in America.
The bill does not only address the Uighur issues. There are Kazakhs and others in the region also have been affected by this, so this is a kind of blanket human rights legislative mandate we’ll eventually address. That includes sanctions provisions, reporting provisions, the Radio Free Asia provision, so it is a historic bill that we hope to see become a law as soon as possible.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I had the good fortune of testifying before Congress last week. This question came up, as you would imagine. And in principle, the concept of Hong Kong human rights and democracy – the title is – you can’t argue with that. But we do obviously need to see a completed bill before we comment, so.
QUESTION: Manik Mehta. I am a syndicated journalist. Question to you: What is the response from the Turkic nations of Central Asia? Are they very responsive to that? Do they also support you, at least morally? Because I understand there are economic pressures on these countries because they deal with China.
MR TURKEL: Secretary Pompeo said it best, that China has its own league when it comes to violating human rights. So the Chinese Government has been quite effective to rally support or buy out silence from neighboring Turkic states, Muslim countries. We have not seen anything in even the mildest form other than Turkey making a statement early this year expressing concern, at least. As you know, expressing concern is not the same thing as taking action or fixing something.
The Uighurs at least expect some Muslim countries that has good relationship with China to tell the Chinese to back off, at least, when they hear specific terminology such as “Islam is a mental illness that should be cured” and the Chinese ambassador to Washington telling Western press or media that they’re trying to convert Uighurs to normal human being.
That kind of stuff need to be pushed back. Not too long ago, the Saudi prince went to China and shook hands with Chinese president, and I don’t think that he even bothered to ask why his name is banned in China, why his way of greeting, such as as-salamu alaykum, is being banned in China. Why his way of practicing religion, the Uighurs’ way of practicing religion, is treated as a criminal act? That kind of simple thing could have been done, but disappointed we have not seen anything.
So the Chinese Government has been, as Ambassador Brownback always says, war on Islam. They are waging a very active war on religion, including Islam, in China.
QUESTION: Well, yesterday at the CFR – I mean the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked about it, and he says we have – we are conveying our concerns to China through backdoor channels. Would you – do you believe that?
MR TURKEL: I doubt that he has been doing what he said. He probably forced to say those words yesterday, but in the past media interviews, as early as a week or so ago, he feigned ignorance about the camps. Knowing —
QUESTION: Al Jazeera’s interview.
MR TURKEL: Yes. And just today we heard a story of a Uighur woman who married a Pakistani gentleman who was trying to lobby his government to get his wife out of Chinese prison, so it’s inconceivable that Imran Khan claim that he does not know anything about this. He could not even take care of his own citizen. There – reportedly there are about three dozen Uighur women who have been married to Pakistani individuals languishing in those camps today.
MODERATOR: I think we have time for a few more.
QUESTION [Radio Free Asia]: Yes, if I may. Earlier you talked about the alarming video footage that came out last week. I think the video footage you are mentioning is the video footage at the train station where up to 600 young Uighur men shaved, blindfolded, taken away by Chinese special police. I assume that was the one. So what’s your – the question is to both of you: What’s your take on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: There are a number of sources. You don’t want to vouch for credibility until you’ve verified them, but the evidence is growing and becomes, as you say, undeniable. The most recent video on Twitter – taken from a drone, it looks like – it appears to be authentic. So we’re looking at it, trying to see if it’s been doctored or anything like that, and it looks like it was taken in the vicinity of Kashgar, which would make sense. ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company, also on Four Corners published something that was pretty compelling; BBC, others.
So – but rather than me put the U.S. Government out there up front, make up your own mind, but the mounting evidence becomes impossible to – and I have to point to my own experience of being based in Beijing in the past and having traveled to Xinjiang and having seen it firsthand. It’s not – I don’t have any doubt that this is going on. And even during a peaceful time, it was very strictly controlled and there were significant security forces there. And so I think you can speak more about the veracity or validity.
MR TURKEL: Yeah. I believe that those are the real footages, not because that I happen to be believing what the Chinese Government has been doing over the years. When you look at the images, it’s just strikingly telling that the individuals in a certain age group – we’ve been told that they are targeting individuals who were born in 1980s, 1990s for these camps. So it can kind of verify, because they all look similar age, belongs to a similar age group, number one.
Number two, we’ve been reading that the Chinese Government have been trying to relocate some of the Uighur detainees to other prison camps in inland China, so that also makes me believe that this is one of those instances that China is transferring.
And then lastly, as opposed to what they have been showing, those Potemkin villages – and this is a real image – that when people start – when people talk about the Uighur crisis, this is the image that they see, that they should see, not the Potemkin village that the Chinese Government is trying to show.
So whoever brought that video our attention apparently know, this apparently from last August. So unless somebody tells us otherwise, based on technological verification, I think it looks genuine to me.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: And as the deputy secretary said in his opening comments today, if there’s nothing to see here, then why is it so difficult to get there to validate it, to – right? I mean, a UN group should be able to go out there, travel freely, and convince – confirm it if there’s nothing happening. But we don’t have that ability to travel freely.
QUESTION [Radio Free Asia]: So what is happening next?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I think we’ve covered that. This —
QUESTION [Radio Free Asia]: No, it has been like different scholars, experts, have different names. Of course, it has been described as a repression. This is a government systematically taking an action against a specific people for a specific reason, taking a state acting it. It’s not just targeting individuals or certain people who have a track record of crimes. This is a government that’s taking a long-term specific action against the Uighurs, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, indigenous Turkic, Muslim minority peoples on a massive scale and systematic way, as many officials stated earlier in the other Xinjiang crisis as well.
So what is happening?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: So I don’t want to softball it or soft-pedal it. In other hand, I don’t want to be accused of hyperbole. My – what’s the word? You need to be able to trust what comes from official statements, and so the name of the event today was the Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang. I think that’s a fair description. And until we can get in and see for ourselves – clearly, as the deputy secretary said – testimony is evidence, if you look at it in legal terms, but it would be nice to have more evidence. And then – but better than that, it would be best if we just simply amended a policy that we all agree is creating a human rights crisis.
This is not the only way to manage this problem the Chinese see. They link this to extremism and terrorism as – again, the deputy secretary this morning said, they also call protesters in Hong Kong terrorists. I mean, that right there should tell you that we’re not talking about the same thing when Western countries talk about terrorism and when Beijing talks about terrorism.
DAS BUSBY: Can I jump in here and add I do think it’s significant for those who don’t know that the party secretary who led the campaign of repression in Tibet is the same party secretary in Xinjiang who has designed the policies there. And what we’re seeing across the board is an attack on independent institutions, independent cultures, any activity that is independent of the Communist Party and the Communist state. I think what we’re seeing is an attempt to squash any potential for opposition, dissent from what the central government wants to do.
MR TURKEL: I’d like to point out a couple things somewhat related to this topic. When we talk about even one million, which is more than the population in the District of Columbia, and those people have names, families, aspirations, dreams. So it’s a sizeable population, so why would they do in such massive scale? It is for some legal scholars to look at.
And also, why would they focus on Uighur children and why would they force Uighur women to marry off to people outside of their cultural circle? And why would the Chinese Government comfortably call Uighur ethnonational identity or liken it to a cancerous tumor that must be weeded out with chemicals?
So these are the things for legal scholars, investigative journalists like yourself, academics to look at. This is a legitimate question that we will love to have an answer for.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: And not to be controversial, but the Fifth Estate, I think, has a responsibility as well to look into these things, and so some good investigative journalism wouldn’t hurt. We’ve already had some examples. I think, again, to let the media, a free press, continue to investigate this question would be extremely helpful.
MODERATOR: And with that —
QUESTION [WallStTv.com]: (Inaudible.) So today at the opening remark at the UN, President Trump, when he addressed to the religious freedom, there was only one sentence. So is it fair to interpret it as this is not high on the agenda of this administration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: The President had a lot to say, as you’ll recall. I mean, following Brazil there were a number of issues there. But if you recall that – at the POTUS event yesterday, not this morning’s event but the POTUS event on religious freedom yesterday, the Uighur question was a very strong theme and it was addressed multiple times. And so I wouldn’t put too much stock into that. Don’t read too much into that.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for your time. This concludes the briefing. I’d like to thank Mr. Turkel, Assistant Secretary Stilwell, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby for being with us. We will send out the transcript when it’s available. Given the number of briefings, it might not be till tomorrow, but it will come out. Thank you all.
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