This interview was conducted over email with Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur American activist and advocate from Xinjiang, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Abbas will be speaking at the Power Plant Gallery on February 15, 2022 at 6:30pm. More information here.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): I know your sister was recently illegally sentenced to prison in retaliation for your advocacy. Can
you speak more on how this has impacted you and your work?

Rushan Abbas (RA): When my sister was abducted  by the Chinese government from her home in East Turkistan more than
three years ago, my whole world changed. Her name is Gulshan Abbas and she is a retired medical doctor. She is a healer of the sick and a public servant who commited her life to making people well. She was taken right after I spoke up at a think tank in Washington DC, speaking out against the Uyghur genocide. She was taken in direct retaliation for my activism. Ever since, not a day has passed in which I don’t wonder about my sister. It is cold in East Turkistan in winter! And my sister has health trouble. Is she fed? Is she warm? I’d she even alive?? These are the questions that keep me up at night and impel me to fight even harder to end the Uyghur genocide.

GM: Can you describe the current situation in China, how and when it started and how it has changed, especially with the Olympics starting?

RA: Uyghurs have been persecuted for years, ever since the communist Chinese government’s occupation in 1949. For the past several years,a new level of terror has shaken my homeland and is trying to annihilate it. December 2021, a UK Uyghur tribunal delivered  a verdict and determined that the PRC is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslims in East Turkistan. It does not get any more egregious than that. Uyghur women are forcibly sterilized and separated from their husbands. Almost a million Uyghur children are sent to state run orphanages and raised by the state in brutally inhumane conditions as NPR recently reported on. Millions of Uygurs are working in factories as slave laborers and are being harassed, abused and murdered in Chinese prisons designed to torture Uygurs. The level of violence the CCP is perpetrating on Uygurs is unlike anything ever seen before in Uyghur history. All of this unfolds behind the backdrop of the Olympics. No sport can detract from this horror.

GM: Whenever someone discusses the holocaust, everyone wonders how the world just let it happen. Why do you think people are so willing to let this genocide happen?

RA: I don’t know what to tell you but we all have a moral imperative to begin acting. Form a support Uyghur student group at Duke, make an anti-Olympic editorial in your school newspaper,  boycott watching the Olympics, make a Free the Uyghurs shirt, write your elected officials, refuse to buy cotton products made in China, since most cotton is harvested on land near Uyghur communities with Uyghur forced labor. Use your voice. Read. Google Uyghur. Follow us on social media. Go to our website and sign up for the mailing list. There is no excuse for us not to act with the internet at our fingertips. We cannot say we were uninformed or ignorant. We know what’s happening! We must act.

GM: Knowing that Duke has a campus in China, does Duke have a responsibility to speak out? What are the most important things for Americans to know and do to work for human rights in Xinjiang?

RA: It’s important for you to know that China buys silence. Those that speak out risk a great deal. China hates criticism and does not tolerate dissent. If Duke speaks out they might lose popularity with China. But ethical living is not a popularity contest. To be ethical and moral takes great courage. The question is, how brave is Duke? Do they have any backbone to speak of? If they do, they will speak out and condemn the genocide in East Turkistan against Uygurs.

GM: What are some of the moments that have given you hope?

RA: Moments like this, engaging with  college students at Duke. Youth give me hope. We continuously gain allies  around the world dedicated to stamping out prejudice and hate. We have a worldwide coalition and hope you will join us. There has also been bipartisan support for this this issue because it is a human rights issue that supersedes ideology between right, left, center or other. This is a human rights calamity. I have also been very pleased by the advocacy by the American Jewish community, who have stepped up in great number, to express solidarity with our cause, as they reflect on their own history of atrocities in Europe. Many Holocaust museums have invited us to speak and for me to share the story of my sister. Embassies and museums worldwide have also invited us to speak. Legislation has been passed to support Uyghurs, but far more can and should be done. Living in a free country also gives me hope. I am very proud to be an American citizen and to use my voice to amplify those in the world–like Uyghurs–whose voices have been silenced by government repression. China ranks nearly last on the list of nations with a free and open press. They rank 177 out of 180 according to Reporters Without Borders.

GM: Where do you see the most promise for real change in Xinjiang?

RA: The only silver lining to the Olympics is that it is an opportunity to shed light on the worst atrocity in modern history. We passed the Forced Labor Protection act but there is far more to do in terms of enforcement. We are also waiting on more countries to stand up and condemn the genocide, especially in the Muslim word, and few have. By shaming China and exposing their crimes we make a large difference. China’s goal is to make this issue disappear, just like so many Uyghurs have, such as my sister. By speaking out, protesting, demonstrating, writing, we foil China’s efforts to silence us. We combat the propaganda machine.