Gulchehra Hoja’s recently published memoir, A Stone is Most Precious Where It Belongs, moved me deeply.
Her book is a wide narrative sweep of her childhood in the Uyghur homeland of Northwest China, through her university years, and then her exile in the USA where she has been a journalist with Radio Free Asia for over 20 years. Hoja’s memoir is one of the first books that not only give English readers insight into the joys and sorrows of growing up in Urumqi China in the 1980s and 1990s, but also opens up the life of a Uyghur activist in the diaspora.
She details some of the challenges of growing up in a society where her ethnic group was slowly losing political and cultural power. I was struck by her personal courage to deal with the expanding power of the Chinese Communist Power as it impacted her education and professional life. At 19, after auditioning and then winning a major acting role in a Uyghur historical movie, she was dismissed when she refused to show romantic interest in the son of a powerful Uyghur Communist Party official. As Gulchehra told the story to her father she wrote, “All of my hard work had been for nothing, just because I would not allow myself to be sold like some piece of meat.”
I spent seven years in the region with my family during the time period of her schooling and early professional life as a TV journalist, and her narrative brought back so many memories. Her details around a miscarriage with her 4th child brought up the memory of losing a child in Guldja, her parents’ hometown, in 1988. She is right, the pain never quite goes away.
After a highly successful TV career where she was the creative force behind a popular children’s show Gulchehra and her first husband made the decision to defect from Europe to Washington DC where she began her career at Radio Free Asia RFA, a U.S. federally funded nonprofit news agency that first broadcast in 1996. She knew there would be repercussions for her family members back in Urumqi, but writes, “I had no idea of the terror awaiting us.”
It began with four policemen coming to her parent’s home and pressing them for answers to Gul’s decision to defect.
Her father’s passport was confiscated. He told her in a rare phone conversation, “Daughter, you can’t come home. No matter what happens to us, you’ll never be able to come home now. Don’t ever forget that.”
Several years later her mother was able to obtain a passport and came to visit. Halfway through the trip, Gulchehra learned how that was possible. The police CCP only let her go if she agreed to try to convince her daughter to return. After her initial shock, Gulchehra told her mother that it was impossible for her to return. Gulchehra spends some time to describe her personal faith journey that culminated in her decision to wear a/the hijab. In a conversation with her close friend Mehray, she describes why she has decided to adapt a custom that has been criminalized in her homeland: “I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I need Allah’s help. (Wearing) it was a pure expression of my faith.” After clearing the decision with her boss at RFA, Gulchehra wore the hijab on a video news segment. The reaction was mixed. She received considerable pushback from male viewers, but positive feedback from other Uyghur women. Soon afterwards the police visited her family back in Urumqi very upset that she had adopted the hijab.
A type of social credit score for the Uyghur population, facilitated by AI technology, has turned Xinjiang into one of the most extensively policed areas on planet Earth.
As surveillance has been adopted throughout the Uyghur homeland, daily religious observances like praying at set times, reading the Qu’ran, attending funerals with a Islamic liturgy read were slowly being stigmatized by the authorities as representing an extremist Muslim ideology. Simply wearing a hijab for women or growing a beard for men has been enough to have people arrested and sent to the expanding network of concentration camps. In other words, practices the rest of the world see as normative, the Chinese state has declared illegal and worthy of first incarceration in the camps and then either forced labor positions or, worse, lengthy prison sentences. While Gulchehra was experiencing the freedom of living in an open society that culminated in her adopting the hijab, her sisters back in the Uyghur homeland were being targeted, separated from their families, and sent to facilities that are truly horrific.
She noticed in her reporting something beginning to change as people in both rural and urban areas began disappearing into these “reeducation camps”. Through Gulchehra, her colleagues at RFA, and other news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times, articles were coming out describing the largest internment of civilians based on ethnicity, culture and religion since the Holocaust.
In 2021 the US State Department estimated that 2 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples had been arrested and taken off for at least a year in what can only be called concentration camps.
Gulchehra calls it “the biggest story the world was facing.” Is that an exaggeration? Like the Holocaust the story has been running quietly in the background of our 24 hour news cycles. Only later generations of historians will be able to answer whether she is right or not. Early in 2018 Gulchehra describes an interview with Omer Bekali, a Uyghur businessman who had moved to Kazakhstan and became a citizen there. He is the first concentration camp survivor to leave China and give a full report to world media. His full interview is available at the Uyghur Tribunal website and it is quite a revelation to read about the torture and cruelty he experienced. After eight months his weight went from 190 pounds to 100.
His own children did not recognize him. As Gulchehra wrote up the story, it brought up the trauma of her brother who had been taken earlier. Nothing, however, prepared her for the phone call from a friend who told her that her entire family, 24 people, had been arrested in one night. Her father was taken from the ICU in an Urumqi hospital, while her mother, 73, was hooded and taken to a cell where she was chained to a pipe with 30 other women. By 2021 the Chinese government had arrested over 50 relatives of the RFA Uyghur reporters. Dealing with secondary trauma caused by the suffering of their close relatives has become a fact of life for Gulchehra, her colleagues, and the entire world-wide Uyghur diaspora. As Gulchrehra ends her story on a note of hope, she is emblematic of resiliency in the face of oppression.
For the growing number of English readers who are concerned about what the US, UK, and Canadian governments are calling a genocide against the Uyghur people, Gulchehra Hoja’s book, A Stone is Most Precious Where It Belongs, is an excellent introduction to the horrors being perpetrated upon this people group from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.