Gulchehra Hoja isn’t watching the Beijing Olympics. She’s a Uyghur journalist who left her homeland, the Xinjiang region of northwest China, 20 years ago and may never be able to go back. “This Olympic is about our dignity, so we reject to watch it,” she says. But of course, she heard about that moment in the opening ceremony when one of the final Chinese torchbearers was revealed to be a Uyghur athlete. “We all see the Chinese government using this girl to cover up the Uyghur genocide,” Hoja says.
If you know much of anything about China’s repression of the Uyghur minority, it’s because of the journalism of people like Hoja, who works for Radio Free Asia. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to her about life in exile. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Do you worry that some people might see the Uyghur athlete at the opening ceremony and think it was a message of unity, like everything’s OK?
Gulchehra Hoja: I don’t think world is that naïve, no. Anybody who knows China, who knows the situation in Uyghur region, they will never see that way, I think.
The Chinese name for the region where you grew up is Xinjiang, or “New Frontier.” But for Uyghurs, this frontier is not new at all—it’s your homeland. You call it East Turkestan. And growing up in the late ’80s, early ’90s, you had this sense of Uyghur pride. Back then, the region was in transition. The Chinese Communist Party was incentivizing Han Chinese to move there, but they weren’t violently forcing Uyghurs to assimilate, the way they are now.
I think we are the lucky generation born after ’70s, ’80s, the relaxed couple of decades. We can use our own language to study in the school and we can read some Uyghur books. We don’t have really religious freedom over there, but still our elderly grandpa, grandmas, can pray, we can learn our own tradition, lifestyle. That’s totally different from now.
So eventually you grew up, you went to university. You decided to go into broadcasting. Why did you want to be on TV?
I studied in Normal University, Uyghur language and literature. And in the last year before the graduation, we practice in the schools—become a teacher, of course. And I feel like I should have more kids to teach. I feel I really want to share all my knowledge with Uyghur kids. Let them know who they are beyond the books.
I read that in your first television appearance, you wore a floral hat and your hair in two ponytails. It was like this iconic Uyghur image.
Yes. I want followers who’s watching my TV to look like Uyghur, speak like Uyghur, think like Uyghur. That’s why I was preparing myself, even my look, my language, all. And that’s why my program was so loved by not only children—teachers, even the grandparents, parents, all love that show.
Was that a big deal, for you to go on TV and present as just completely Uyghur?
Yeah, because we feel the pressure, that time. We feel more Han Chinese people coming, and also the policy toward Uyghurs more have assimilation and the propaganda. So that time we were fighting for keep our identity. Of course, sometimes I get trouble and warnings as well.
You became a household name after appearing on Xinjiang TV, hosting the first children’s program in the region. You were a presenter on Chinese state media and were even in commercials and music videos. But you’ve described a trip you took to Europe in 2001 as a turning point for you, a moment where you literally never went back. It’s so dramatic. How did it even happen?
When I come to Europe, I have freedom to see all the internet, you know, what’s happening outside of Uyghur region, what does the Uyghur movement look like, what kind of contribution they doing, the outside Uyghurs. So I watch all.
In Europe I had the chance to listening Radio Free Asia, and I listened whole year. It’s like half-an-hour show that time every day. It’s totally different from what we are producing to people, of course. And I feel guilty. I feel shame. You know, I was so proud to be a TV host, to be a journalist, to be famous in Uyghur region. But that shows what I’m doing is just like the propaganda—not enough for proud to be broadcast or journalist. It’s no freedom over there.
So what should I do? What’s my parents’ wish? I think very deep, and I change my mind that time. I feel like I cannot go back and continue what I was doing. And I was thinking what you can see freely, think freely, speak freely—that’s called happiness. That’s called freedom. That’s why I chose that, you know? And I make decision.
So you show up to the offices of Radio Free Asia and ask for a job. It was a gutsy move—RFA is funded by the U.S. government, and the Chinese consider its work propaganda. But RFA welcomed you. You were a familiar face to some of the staffers, a bit of a celebrity. Some colleagues were giddy to have such a high-profile defector from the Chinese Communist Party.
They were so proud. Even a director of RFA, he was saying, we win, CCP, we got you. Immediately, next day, I start giving my 100 percent energy to the work, and I didn’t pay attention what China’s government doing.
When did you know you wouldn’t be able to go back?
After first call to my father and my parents. After two weeks, I called them after I came to U.S. I choose to come to U.S. and work for RFA. I couldn’t tell them, because if I tell, I am the only daughter in the family—of course, they don’t want me to just disappear like that. They will not bear that separation. That’s my first-ever decision without my father’s guide. And I don’t regret it. If I had 100 times to have the decision, I will choose the same, because freedom is everything.
After I came, Chinese government seized my videos, movies, commercials, everything, and put me in some kind of red notice, accusing me as separatist in that time in 2001.
The red notice meant you were technically a fugitive, and your parents were forced into early retirement because of your work.
Only one word my father was saying, “Oh, my brave girl, Nozugum.” Nozugum was a very heroic woman in Uyghur history who stood up [against] the Chinese regime and died. So he giving me that name, I feel he is proud of my decision, even it’s so hard and so painful for him. My mother says, “Please be careful what you’re saying, and we miss you. We’re proud of you. And live happily. Live proudly.”
When was the last time you spoke to her?
One and a half months ago. But it has several conditions. After I call first time, she has to hang up and let the neighborhood police know I am calling. Then after 15 minutes, I call them again, and I only can ask about their house and life. We cannot talk any other sensitive subject. Even I cannot ask other relatives who’s been arrested.
She’s OK, she’s OK. She’s very strong. Actually, she is the most strong human being and woman I know.
I’m wondering if you can tell the story of how you began reporting on what was happening in your region.
In 2016, I believe, we find out there’s many, many camps called reeducation camps, Chinese government saying. But we heard horrible stories from the camp survivors. They describe there is like crime against humanity. At first, the international media was questioning so much and couldn’t believe, because of the very low knowledge about where is the Uyghur region, who are the Uyghurs. So we have to give information about all your background and take so much time.
And then, 2018, major media start watching the Uyghur region, what’s going on. And then Chinese government couldn’t hide well, and first they deny, we don’t have concentration camp. And second, they were announcing, oh, those are not concentration camps, those are reeducation camps. Then they denied that again—they are like training camps for providing jobs to Uyghurs and other minorities. So they changing their tones, of course. After we spoke out, many stories come out and then the whole world believing us what’s going on.
Who was the first victim you interviewed where you thought, oh, I know what’s happening?
Omir Bekali was born in Uyghur region. He married and moved to Kazakhstan. Actually, he has dual citizenship, Chinese and Kazakh. He was working in travel companies between Kazakh and Uyghur region. He went to Uyghur region in 2016 and get arrested. And the questioning—you know, did you participate any terrorist group, any kind of threat? And he has more than one year experience in several camps and tortured. After he get out from China because of family members fight for him, he reunite with his family in Kazakhstan.
I was reading the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s report about what’s happening to the Uyghur people, and a few things stood out to me. One was something you’ve been getting at in this conversation, which is this slowly heating up situation where you grew up in a region and were able to have a Uyghur identity and slowly, slowly, it was like a vise tightening, and all of the sudden it seemed like things got much worse, but really groundwork had been laid for a long time. Like the Chinese government, yes, has camps that people have probably heard about, has done really atrocious things, and then also has put in place these incentives for Han Chinese to not just move to the Uyghur region, but do things like marry Uyghur women and your children. If you’re in a family that’s Han and Uyghur, they may get a preferential slot at university. So all of these ways that incentivize Uyghur culture breakdown—I just hadn’t understood the sheer breadth of what was happening.
Some call it genocide, with justification, including U.S. government. China’s crimes are genocide or crimes against humanity. Right now, many, many more countries recognize it. So Chinese government sees us like the enemies, because we are the first news outlet covered the issues in our homeland, what’s going on in the Uyghur region. That’s why Chinese government targeted our families back home trying to silence us. For example, my family members, 24 of them, just in one night, Chinese government sent them to camp in 2018, February.
Do you feel lucky that you left?
I cannot describe that as lucky. Being a human, when your loved ones suffering, you wish, you want to be with them, of course. This burden, like burning outside of this fire, I feel it’s really hurt. That’s why only release for me is work harder. To do something for them. But I feel never enough, never enough doing to help them. Physically, I’m here, yeah. But mentally, I am suffering with them together, because I cannot say I’m lucky, I’m happy, without them.
I read that you couldn’t bring your kids to visit their grandparents, but your husband was able to?
Only my oldest one. It was in 2008 Olympic time. We picked that time because we believe that specific time is international media have eye on China and spot also Uyghur region, so we strongly believe they cannot do anything to harm. So me and my husband was decided. Maybe we should try to go there and make grandpa, grandma proud and see their own grandchildren, smell her, kiss her, have that feeling. So my husband was bravely say, yes, we have to do it. This is the moment, we could try.
And we try. But in two weeks, my husband says, immediately they sending police to watch him every day. Every morning they call and they write down the plans, what he is going to do that day, daily routine. But what we bring to our family is hope, the love, how much I miss them. So they see my daughter and see me. That’s the happiest moment for them.
You mentioned how the one time your parents have seen one of your children was the last Olympics, and that you’ve last spoken to your mother six weeks ago. So I wonder, this Olympics, are you going to give her a call during this time?
No. Anything Chinese government established, have some big meeting or some holidays coming, that’s the most dangerous moment for Uyghurs. Tension. The Chinese government will spend more to control Uyghurs.
So you’re saying now is the most dangerous time.
Yes, most dangerous time. They don’t want anybody giving information about Uyghur region to the outside, what kind of pressure they’re facing. I don’t want to put them in more danger, so I decide not to call. I just pray.
It sounds like your work has come at a tremendous cost.
I believe, just like me right now, any Uyghur, and if you ask any Uyghur abroad, they have some family members, friends, loved ones, still in concentration camps. Nobody’s happy. Nobody. But Uyghurs, we say, is it harder to burn [in the] middle of the fire or around the fire?
We all suffer. Even you are not in the Uyghur homeland, not in the concentration camps. Mentally, we are suffering.