Interview: ‘There’s a clear intentional destruction of Uyghur culture and identity’


Educator Lina Lenberg discusses her academic dissertation on the Uyghur genocide.

U.S. educator Lina Lenberg in an undated photo.

Lina Lenberg completed a Ph.D. program in May at the University of San Francisco, where she studied and wrote about genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region and the Uyghur diaspora’s resistance to Chinese state violence. Lenberg’s work is the first academic dissertation in the West that is solely dedicated to the Uyghur crisis. An educator for over 20 years and Northern California representative for the group Human Rights Educators USA, Lenberg recently spoke to reporter Kurban Niyaz of RFA Uyghur about her dissertation and activities on behalf of the Uyghurs. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: What inspired you to work on this topic?

Lenberg: I used to work at an international school in San Francisco, and we had lots of Chinese students and other students from different countries. There was a year when two Uyghur brothers came with Chinese passports. I had traveled to China, but at the time, I didn’t know anything about Uyghurs. So, I just started talking to them and asking [questions]. I didn’t know that there was this ethnic group in China. I was only familiar with Han [Chinese]. I had heard about Tibet by that point, but I had never heard of Uyghurs, and I didn’t know anything about Xinjiang. 

I started hearing more and more about some of the struggles that their families had experienced that they themselves as kids had experienced with their Han Chinese classmates. I became interested in wanting to learn more. As I met more Uyghur adults in the Bay Area who were connected to these students and to other people, I started to hear these stories of incredible discrimination and oppression. This was before anyone was talking about the genocide. I then went back to school in 2016 to do my doctorate in human rights education. As a human rights educator, I really teach all about social justice. All my students know about Uyghurs now. 

In 2017, all the news started to come out about the camps and everything else. I’ve been very closely following all of this news since 2017. [When] I decided that I had to write my dissertation, I felt like there was not enough attention being given to this issue. China continues to deny everything, so I felt an obligation to the Uyghur community here, who have become my friends, and to myself [as] a Jewish person born in Russia who came to the U.S. as a child because of my own family’s religious persecution. And [with] the Holocaust, I grew up hearing, “Never again!” and here we are, and it’s happening [again]. I hope my dissertation can be used as a piece of advocacy. 

RFA: When we talk about a genocide, most people tend to link it with mass murder similar to what occurred during World War II. But considering the lack of evidence of mass murder in the Uyghur region, some experts decline to call it a genocide. What do you think about this? 

Lenberg: That’s wrong. That is incorrect because [it fits] the internationally accepted definition of genocide, which is what the United Nations created after the Holocaust intentionally to prevent these things from happening again. The Genocide Convention [contains] the internationally accepted definition of genocide, to which China is a signatory. The Genocide Convention [has] a list of things that can be considered genocide, and we can see that all of the things on the list right now are being committed in China. I think people have a common misconception that genocide simply means the mass killing of people, but in fact, it’s any act or set of acts which are intended to destroy an ethnic group. 

Here again it’s the same pattern of dispossession, oppression, and destruction of an ethnic group. China is doing it not only by separating children and families and controlling the population, but also the destruction of Uyghur culture. This is something I feel like people don’t talk about. There’s a lot of discussion about forced labor and things having to do with economic issues. But if we look at what is going on and what has been going on for years, there’s a clear intentional destruction of Uyghur culture and identity [with] the destruction of mosques and cemeteries, the limiting of the naming of children, the prohibition of doing anything related to Islam, and not being able to grow a beard — all these things are what I suggest are mechanisms of control of the Uyghur population, social control, and destruction of Uyghur identity, and so that’s also part of genocide.

RFA: What similarities and differences do you see between the Holocaust that occurred 70 years ago and the Uyghur genocide?  

Lenberg: A major difference was that when the Holocaust was happening, a lot of people didn’t know that it was happening and until it was too late. But now the world knows what is happening. There is so much information from scholars, from journalists, from witnesses, from survivors of the camps. There are so many consistent testimonies — hundreds of consistent testimonies — so, I feel like the world has no excuse right now. I feel like there is enough evidence to show that there is genocide [that’s] been ongoing since at least 2017. 

People are denying this because of economic relations with China, particularly connected to the Belt and Road [Initiative]. All the countries in which China has already built infrastructure are now indebted to China. It’s really an issue of denial in favor of economic interests over human rights. It is a very dangerous way for the international community to deal with these kinds of issues.

We can see now that other countries that are allied with China are doing things also with impunity that are causing mass suffering, and I fear that this enables other authoritarian regimes around the world to feel like they can do whatever they want without consequence and with impunity. 

RFA: In your dissertation, you wrote that diaspora Uyghurs believe that China’s genocidal crimes began a relatively long time ago. Why do they believe this?

Lenberg: I completely trust what the Uyghurs in the diaspora are saying, I don’t think that there’s any reason for them to be lying. They are very concerned about their family members, many of whom are still in China, most of whom they cannot communicate with anymore. There’s enough evidence both historically and from the present day that shows that this is China’s goal. It appears that all of these actions that they’re taking within Chinese society indicate that there’s no regard for Uyghur life, culture or identity. 

RFA: Given China’s power and the world’s silence, what can members of the Uyghur diaspora do to try to stop the atrocities?

Lenberg: This brings up a whole other issue, which is the fear of persecution of people’s relatives that are still in East Turkestan. What I’ve heard widely from Uyghurs of the diaspora is that they recognize that their activism, that their resistance to Chinese state violence, is limited by these fears of reprisals against their relatives, and people have been threatened directly, [so that] they stop their political activism. Uyghurs from the diaspora over the world and organizations like the World Uyghurs Congress, Uyghur Human Rights Project and Campaign for 

Uyghurs have been very active in doing what they can by speaking out and organizing protests. We need to really remember that they’re doing it at great risk to themselves and their family members. Diaspora members have been very active in different ways, especially through organizations, to try to raise awareness, to publish reports, to work with the United Nations, to work with different world governments, such as organizing a Uyghur tribunal. All these things have been happening, [but] still, there’s been very little response on the part of the international community.

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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