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World Uyghur Congress Leader Discusses Time in China, Uyghur-Han Chinese Tension

World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa, left, with Dean Baxendale of Optimum Publishing International, at a March 14, 2024, event marking the publication of his book, The China Freedom Trap. (Photo courtesy Optimum Publishing International)
World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa, left, with Dean Baxendale of Optimum Publishing International, at a March 14, 2024, event marking the publication of his book, The China Freedom Trap. (Photo courtesy Optimum Publishing International)

As head of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa runs one of the most prominent organizations in the world advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.

In his recently released book, The China Freedom Trap, subtitled My Life on the Run, Isa recounts key events that have dotted his journey and time since he left China in 1994.

To learn more about what it was like for him in China, VOA’s Natalie Liu spoke to Isa on the sidelines of a Washington event held by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy on March 14.

In the following interview, edited for clarity and brevity, Isa talks about his early years in what China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — but he and other Uyghur activists prefer to call East Turkestan — his move to Beijing in the 1990s and his hope for the future.

VOA: You were born in 1967. What was it like growing up in Xinjiang in those years?

Dolkun Isa: That was around the time the Chinese Cultural Revolution started, which lasted [officially] 10 years [until 1976]. I entered primary school in Aksu. We had two or three Chinese [language] class each week, which we [studied] as a foreign language at that time.

By the time I went to high school, I think we had six Chinese language classes every week. It was Uyghur teachers who taught us Chinese.

In 1984, I enrolled in university to study physics. At that time, teaching language was Uyghur — Uyghur professor, teaching Uyghur students, in Uyghur language. This policy was changed in 2004.

Until 2004, from primary school all the way to university, for Uyghur students, the teaching language was Uyghur. In 2004, Uyghur professors had to [become proficient] in Mandarin Chinese to keep their jobs.

VOA: You attended but did not graduate from Xinjiang University?

Isa: That’s right. I was not able to graduate because in 1987, I established one of the student cultural groups ... In 1988, we held a big demonstration to protest against [daily] discrimination we felt … that happened during my last semester, I was kicked out of the university; that’s why I wasn’t able to graduate.

VOA: You said earlier that at that time, there was no discrimination in terms of the teaching language in the schools. What were the other types of discrimination?

Isa: At that time, the language of instruction was Uyghur, but there were very few textbooks in the Uyghur language, for example.

VOA: Why did you decide to go to Beijing to continue your studies? Which year was that?

Isa: I went to Beijing in 1990, I stayed in Beijing 1990 to 1994. For two years, I studied English and Turkish languages, the [next] two years, I ran a restaurant in Beijing.

VOA: What made you want to study English and Turkish?

Isa: Because I wanted to continue my university studies but I couldn’t. I studied at the Number 1 Foreign Languages Institute, now Beijing Foreign Languages University.

VOA: That’s a difficult school to get into.

Isa: I didn’t go for a diploma, but just a [language] certificate; I paid my own tuition, was there four semesters.

VOA: How much did you have to pay each semester?

Isa: At that time, I remember it was 800 yuan per semester; big money that time.

VOA: And authorities allowed you to go to Beijing to study, instead of saying: ‘You’re not going anywhere, for the rest of your life’ [due to your having led the demonstrations in Xinjiang].

Isa: At that time, they didn’t have such [stringent] restrictions. Even ID cards were not that common back then. At the university, you pay, register, and next day, you start [your classes].

VOA: You didn’t go to Beijing [from Xinjiang] in 1989?

Isa: No. At that time, I was in East Turkestan.

VOA: That year, a lot of college students in Beijing were sent to military-style disciplinary training (in the aftermath of that year’s students-led protests).

Isa: We also had that at Xinjiang University; [newly admitted] students would first go through military exercises, then [Chinese] language classes [before moving on to other subjects].

VOA: How do you feel [in general] about Han Chinese?

Isa: I only became aware of our rights when I entered the university; before, I thought as Uyghurs, we’re second [class] citizens, Chinese people being first [class] citizens; this was ‘natural,’ it was due to [the Chinese Communist Party]’s policies.

Later when I went to Beijing, I also could feel the discrimination. At hotels, they often would welcome us at first because we looked like foreigners, but when we show them our ID which say we’re Uyghurs, we were turned away because there were instructions from the police saying no Uyghurs. Also, the Uyghur people were seen [derogatorily] merely as 'those who sell kababs.'

VOA: Are you able to see the Uyghur people and Han Chinese co-existing peacefully in the future?

Isa: The Chinese Communist Party has already done so much brainwashing of the Chinese people; a genocide is being carried out directed at the Uyghur people, but we haven’t seen a lot of support from Chinese people both inside China and among the exiles. When Xi Jinping comes to the United States or Germany, there are many Chinese students in these countries who are enjoying democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression that show support of the dictator.

VOA: They’re said to be paid by the Chinese Embassy.

Isa: Yes, but still, they call the Uyghurs terrorists and the Tibetans 'separatists.'

VOA: The [December 2022] White Paper protests were started because of the tragic incident that happened in Urumqi, a lot of Chinese were saying: ‘If it could happen in Urumqi, it could happen to us.’ They showed a lot of solidarity [with the Uyghur people].

Isa: Yes, this is a good point, this gives us some hope. [It’s important for this to] continue.

VOA: Do you see other signs of hope?

Isa: I intend to stay an optimist. I keep asking members of the Chinese democratic movement to educate Chinese people living in exile against the 'Great Han Race' [prejudice indoctrinated] by the Chinese Communist Party.