Civil Rights

Why we must stand up for Uyghurs: An interview with activist Julie Millsap

By Abdullah Dowaihy

With the hopes of erasing their religious and cultural identity, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is inflicting indoctrination, sterilization, and sexual abuse on more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in the concentration camps of Xinjiang. For example, Tursunay Ziawudun, one of the Uyghurs that fled the camps in Xinjiang, described how the women would be raped “every night by one or more masked Chinese men.” Furthermore, Qelbinur Sedik, a former Uzbek teacher in the camps that eventually fled too, discussed how she was “coerced into giving lessons” to Uyghurs in order to strip them from their culture and faith and integrate them “into mainstream Chinese culture.” The CCP’s brutality towards Uyghurs has been confirmed by the UN Human Rights office in a report published on August 31, 2022, that deemed their actions “crimes against humanity.” In fact, the human rights office has declared that allegations of torture and sexual violence are “credible.” Therefore, Muslims and human rights activists must come together and compel world leaders to invoke the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which states that countries must act to prevent a genocide in any country if it occurred. 

To learn more about the current state of Uyghur rights activism, I reached out to several renowned activists and organizations for an interview. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact representatives from the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur American Association, I sought Uyghur allies elsewhere. 

I discovered Julie Millsap on Twitter, an outspoken US-based activist in Washington DC who criticizes China’s blatant infractions against Uyghur Muslims. Millsap works full-time for the Renew Democracy Initiative but engages with the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) on a contract basis as the Government Relations Manager.

I interviewed Millsap over Zoom in late July 2022. Millsap’s personality and voice matched her tweets: a mixture of deep knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang and compassion. Sitting in a bright white room in her Washington D.C. residence, Millsap answered my questions matter-of-factly, exposing the multi-faceted complexities facing the Uyghurs and what needs to be done to help them. 

Millsap started her activism on behalf of the Uyghurs when she lived in China with her husband, a Chinese national, from 2010 to 2020. She noticed how repressive China became under Xi Jinping and began picking up on the number of Uyghurs arrested or  “disappeared” as part of a “counter-terrorism” initiative. Millsap decided that she would not remain silent about the CCP’s brutal crackdown on Uyghur Muslims. She compared what was happening in China regarding the erosion of Uyghur rights to the Holocaust during WWII. Much like Nazi Germany, the CCP took extreme measures to silence outspoken critics of its human rights abuses.

The CCP intimidated Millsap into abandoning her Uyghur advocacy by going after Millsap’s sister-in-law with whom she had a close relationship. Millsap recalled how the CCP pressured her sister-in-law to “send messages” to her that “imply or explicitly state that” the lives of her child and niece will be in danger if she did not stop her activism. Even more shocking, the CCP’s intelligence agency accused Millsap of “working with terrorist groups,” referring to the  Uyghur advocacy groups she had partnered with. Nevertheless, Millsap was determined to fight for the rights of Uyghurs regardless of the CCP’s scare tactics. As a result, Millsap left China in 2020 and returned to the United States where it would be safer to practice her activism. 

Although the current American political landscape is divided, the unity condemning China’s human rights abuses is an anomaly on Capitol Hill. Millsap told me that both the Democrats and Republicans she has approached are supportive of holding China accountable over Xinjiang. Millsap asserted that the United States has had the strongest response so far to the CCP’s abuses. 

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on CCP officials who engage in transnational repression and passed legislation punishing companies that trade products manufactured in Xinjiang that relies on Uyghur slave labor. Millsap praised President Biden for adopting a multilateral approach to helping Uyghurs instead of maintaining former President Trump’s unilateral approach. Early in Biden’s administration, the U.S., UK, Canada, and E.U. announced coordinated sanctions on China over its abuses of Uyghurs. However, Millsap criticized the minimal support Uyghur refugees have received from the Biden administration thus far. Although Millsap is “pleased to see that some asylum cases have been processed,” she believes the U.S. must clear “the backlog of cases.” Even though the U.S. has taken many steps to help the Uyghurs compared to other countries, it has only scratched the surface. Millsap emphasized that cooperation among the international community is imperative to tackle the Uyghur genocide.

Finally, I asked how much support she is getting from Muslim governments and the Muslim community. After I told her about my disappointment in Muslim governments that are cooperating with China, Millsap counter-argued that Muslim individuals are aiding Uyghurs more than is known. She told me that Muslims in the U.S. have spread awareness to family members in their home countries about the Uyghur situation and how they can support the movement.

Millsap also described the influential efforts of the Uyghur diaspora to lobby the governments of Muslim-majority countries they have fled to, such as Turkey and Indonesia, to hold China accountable. She told me that Uyghurs in Turkey have access to the Turkish government while in Malaysia they organized civil societies that are strong. Millsap then opined that Muslim-majority countries will have to address the Uyghur crisis since no Muslim head of government wants to be seen as abetting a genocide orchestrated against Muslims. Millsap pointed out that the CCP has been burning many copies of the Quran and has been accused of “organ harvesting” Uyghurs and other target groups in Chinese detention camps. Millsap argued that these crimes against Muslim rights in Xinjiang would become so disturbing to the Muslim world that governments would be forced to respond to assuage their people. 

To wrap up our interview, I asked Millsap to make her case to my LBJ classmates: why should policymakers on the national and global levels remain focused on the Uyghur genocide? She explained that if we can stop a genocide in a powerful country like China, the second largest economic power, then we can mitigate against human rights abuses in the future. Millsap then talked about how the international system would be better off under U.S. leadership than under China’s. Admitting that the U.S. is far from ideal, Millsap argued that a world order led by the U.S. would empower human rights norms and nurture civil societies. That is especially because the biggest international human rights organizations, such as the UN, and Human Rights Watch, are located in the U.S. 

My interview with Millsap gave me a reason to believe that human rights, including those of the Uyghurs, will eventually triumph despite the lack of adequate action by world leaders. The CCP is strong and grows more powerful each day but there are many people standing up to its tyranny and its actions in Xinjiang. However, it takes powerful leaders to put an end to a genocide, as described by the UN. People in positions of power such as President Biden must pay attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, especially the mothers and children forcibly separated from each other because of their Islamic faith. Therefore, world leaders have a duty to invoke the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to uphold the international human rights of Uyghurs and all mankind.

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