Gulchehra Hoja has dedicated her life to protecting her people, who are being tortured for their religion and identity
in November 2017, 23-year-old Amanet Khan (name changed for safety reasons), a Chinese graduate student studying in New York City, knew something was wrong when her father stopped responding to her texts on WeChat, a popular messaging app in China. Gradually, even her mother’s texts slowed down to one-word responses.
“My conversations with my mother got even stranger when I shared with her how much I was enjoying living in New York City, how it was less polluted than China. She said things like, ‘there is no place better in the world than China.’ I knew then that she was really worried about the government tracking our family,” Khan explained.
Uighurs can be arrested under spying and terrorism charges just for contacting relatives and friends living outside of China.
A few weeks later, Khan’s mother told her to delete her two sisters off of WeChat. In June 2018, her last remaining link to her family, her mother, also disappeared off the messaging app.
WeChat was the primary method of communication between Khan and her family who lives in Xianjing, home to the ethnic Uighurs — China’s Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority. Officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, every move that the more than 13 million Uighurs living here make is meticulously monitored by the government. They must swipe their IDs at checkpoints to get from point A to point B, their homes can be searched at any time, and they must install software on their phones that allows the government to monitor their activity.
Any anti-government action or conversation is grounds for arrest. The Human Rights Watch estimates a million Uighurs have been detained in a massive network of internment camps. Uighurs can also be arrested under spying and terrorism charges just for contacting relatives and friends living outside of China. And those that travel outside of the country for work or education themselves are often arrested upon their return to China and sent to the political “re-education camps” as the Chinese government has labeled them, where “detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, sing praises of the Chinese Communist Party, and memorize rules applicable primarily to Turkic Muslims.
Khan was afraid that her family had been sent to the camps and she would meet with the same fate if she tried to go back home after she finished her graduate program.
“I had no choice but to apply for asylum in the United States,” Khan explains. While the U.S. State Department condemns the Chinese government for their treatment of the Uighurs and has called on China to end the presence of the camps, getting asylum in the United States is no easy feat.
“To build your asylum case, you need documentary evidence, affidavits, news articles, or country reports. When the government is your persecutor, it’s a little difficult to get that stuff,” explains immigration lawyer Moumita Rahman.
Khan needed a major ace in her pocket to secure her asylum case: the support of D.C.-based Uighur American journalist, Gulchehra Hoja.
For the last 17 years, Hoja has been reporting on the oppression of the Uighur community as a journalist for Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s Uighur Service — the only Uighur-language news outlet outside of China. The region is heavily restricted for international journalists but Hoja and her colleagues get access to stories that other media outlets can’t obtain easily.
“Uighurs from all over the world risk their lives to send me information on social media. This is how I have been reporting on what the Chinese government has been doing to my people for so long,” Hoja exclaims.
Hoja’s reporting is a lifeline for Uighurs both inside and outside Xinjiang and for over a decade and a half, RFA was the only unmonitored news source for Uighur. Hoja updates her listeners and readers on China’s political activity in the region. She also reports on the difficulties of everyday life for Uighurs living in Xinjiang — forced marriages between Han Chinese and Uighur women; outlawed hijabs and long beards; Chinese police officers cutting off Uighur women’s long skirts in the streets because they resembled what is considered an Islamic dress code. According to Hoja, the Chinese government has even gone as far as to force Uighurs to change their Muslim names.
Hoja says she never foresaw the role that she is playing in the Uighur struggle. She grew up in Xinjiang in the 1990s when the Chinese government had slowly started eradicating Uighur history and culture from the region. Historically Uighur buildings were demolished and the Uighur language was outlawed in universities and schools and replaced with Mandarin.
“Growing up, I knew so little about my religion and history,” Hoja explains.
Xianjing, formerly known as East Turkestan, was part of the legendary Silk Road, where the Uighur community has lived for over 400 years. Xinjiang — which means “new frontier” in Chinese — was brought under the Communist Party of China’s control in 1949 and the Chinese government has always feared that the Uighurs, who are less than 1% of the Chinese population, will someday claim independence and separate from the rest of China. Over the decades, the government gradually introduced restrictive laws to curb the religious practice and cultural pride among Muslim Uighurs.
After graduating from university, Hoja worked for Xinjiang TV and attained celebrity status as the host of the first children’s program for Uighurs. She was directed by her producers to spread positive messages about the Chinese Communist Party. She never questioned it.
“Every publisher, every journalist, every writer, every artist has to listen to the command of Chinese Communist Party,” Hoja says. “ I was also one of their propaganda tools.”
The government even granted her permission to go on vacation to Europe in 2001, which very few Uighurs working in media were allowed to do.
“I was young and they thought they had groomed me and wouldn’t be influenced,” Hoja scoffed.
At27th years old while sitting in a hotel room in Austria her view of the Chinese government drastically changed when she saw television coverage of Uighur protest. It clicked then that she had to use her media experience for something other than the Chinese government’s agenda.
“I contacted Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C., explained who I was and that I wanted to work for them,” Hoja says. RFA hired her immediately. In D.C., she used her voice, familiar to millions of Uighurs all over the world from her acting and television hosting days, to speak up about the plight of her people. But it had dire consequences for her and her family. She was blacklisted from ever entering China again. Her family faced daily harassment from Chinese authorities.
“After I started working for RFA, the police visited my family every day. They took away their passports. My father was a famous architect and had a book coming out. They forced him to retire and his book was never published,” Hoja says.
On September 28, 2017, Hoja found out her brother was seized by Chinese security forces. Soon, over two dozen more of her relatives, including her elderly parents, were also arrested and sent to internment camps. Hoja’s parents were released after a few months but now live under extreme surveillance. Her contact with her parents is limited to when they feel up to the task of risking a quick chat via social media or messenger service.
“I want to show the next generation that you have to sacrifice for your freedom. Freedom is not free.”
”My family is suffering because of me and my heart is heavy,” Hoja shares.
“But my voice is recognizable for my people. If I used a fake name, they wouldn’t recognize me.”
Since her family’s arrests and disappearances, Hoja has gotten even bolder in speaking out against the Chinese government.
“Over the last few years, I received so many more calls and text messages than usual from all over the world, from Uighurs whose friends, family members and close relatives have been taken to the camps,” Hoja says. “Uighurs were scared to speak up because of repercussions, but now they are desperate because so many more have been detained since 2016.”
Hoja’s fight for Uighur freedom has gone beyond reporting for RFA. She actively works with the U.S. government to bring awareness to what she calls “human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government.” She testified before Congress in July 2018, sharing her family’s story and her experience as an RFA journalist. She also helped the U.S. State Department find eyewitnesses who had been inside the camps.
“The U.S. State Department was searching for fresh evidence about what is going on in Xinjiang and asked me for help,” Hoja explains. “I told them I had been in touch with a woman who had recently been released from the camps in Xinjiang and was living in Egypt but it was dangerous to contact her directly. The government would need to relocate her.”
Hoja put the State Department in contact with Mihrigul Tursun, a 29-year-old Uighur woman who lived in Egypt with her husband and children and had been sent to the internment camps three times since 2015. Last November, Tursun testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that she was tortured and one of her triplets had died while in Chinese custody.
Uighur refugees like Tursun and Khan are just two out of many Uighurs whom Hoja has helped through her journalism. But she’s paid a heavy price for her work: the safety of her family in Xinjiang and the uncertainty of their future.
“I want to show the next generation that you have to sacrifice for your freedom. Freedom is not free,” says Hoja.