The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treats people of faith “as though they carry an infectious disease [that] needs to be cured … ‘Reeducation’ is a code word for human reengineering,” says Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He was born in a reeducation camp in China during the Cultural Revolution. It’s been 19 years since he last saw his mother, who remains in China.
We discuss the CCP’s high-tech tyranny, its war on religious faiths—detailed in a new USCIRF report—and the influence of Chinese lobbying in America.
What was America’s greatest strategic blunder in its relationship with the CCP? And how can it be rectified now?
FULL TRANSCRIPT Jan Jekielek: Nury Turkel, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Nury Turkel: Thank you very much for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: When you were last on, we were talking about your book, No Escape, about being born in communist China in a camp and making it to America and becoming a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act lawyer in the process, an unbelievable journey. Lately, you’ve been doing something very topical, which is you took on running the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. It’s annual report time and let’s start there. Please tell me what this organization is, because we have to keep reminding folks, and also, what you found.
Mr. Turkel: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom [USCIRF] was established in 1999. The commission is an independent federal government agency that reports religious freedom violations around the world and makes policy recommendations to the U.S. President, Secretary of State and Congress. We have nine commissioners appointed by party leadership, and president and congressional leadership.
In this year’s report, we highlighted China again. Since 1999, USCIRF has been recommending with the support of the U.S. State Department designating China as a country of particular concern. You know what happened in 1998 onward, instead of making it better for people of faith in China, China has been waging war on people of faith. As a result, the CCP has turned itself into a genocidal regime today.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s unbelievable. Of course, in 1999, the CCP began persecuting the Falun Gong practitioners, 70 to 100 million people became illegal overnight.
Mr. Turkel: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: It can be hard for people to grasp. This is something like one in 13 Chinese suddenly becoming illegal, and suddenly being eradicated according to the words of the dictator at the time. It seems to make no sense. In fact, I often get asked that question, “Why do you think they did it”?
Mr. Turkel: It’s a great question and a legitimate question. It’s an important question for the American people to understand. In the 1990s, our government made a huge mistake delinking human rights from the trade negotiations or discussions, and helped to get China into the WTO [World Trade Organization]. That paved the way for human rights and religious freedom issues being pushed to the side.
As a result, the business interests, America and global, had a much more important role with China, with influence over Chinese practices. That made it even more difficult to advocate religious freedom for oppressed religious groups like the Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Catholics, and the Muslims.
The key question is why do they hate people of faith so much? The short answer is that the Chinese communist leadership sees people of faith as a potential threat for political upheaval. The second reason is the Chinese Communist Party sees or perceives religious practitioners as a group of people showing signs of disloyalty to the party. That eventually they believe will undermine communist party power.
They don’t say it publicly. They have rosy pictures. They have a nicely written constitution. They have religious affairs regulations, but that has been only on paper. The international community bears some responsibility helping the Chinese to take it from religious persecution and human rights abuse to today’s nightmare that is a genocidal regime.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about this very briefly. You mentioned something really important —the consequences of delinking trade from human rights.
Mr. Turkel: It’s a strategic blunder. Even though some people starting from Bush 41, had a good intention to help the Chinese people, thinking that helping China to become economically prosperous, helping them with the technology, and helping them with education. The policymakers thought that China would become one of us, or a member of the free world.
The opposite has happened. Instead of us changing them, they are changing us. That’s something that we need to be reminded of, the American policy makers, and the public in general. Even though some people initiated, promoted, and pushed for that policy agenda, we have to recognize that it has been a miserable failure.
To China’s Communist Party two things are very important. One, their economic development. The other is the public perception of the regime. When you take that one important factor off the table, of course they will continue the abuses and persecution with impunity. What is the cost to them?
It is not only for the United States to think about or revisit, but also to come up with coherent strategic policy responses today. The same thing is true with countries in Asia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and also the European Union. Thank God we live in a country that has figured out there are problems with our relationship with the communist China in the last three or four years, starting with the Trump administration.
We are looking at different ways of dealing with the communist China. People talk about finding the symptoms, but there has not been a prescription to cure the problem. We’re still debating and discussing. I would call it a strategic blunder.
Mr. Jekielek: You actually have a proposal 0f where to start things off in a letter that the group of commissioners wrote recently. It’s a very good idea and I want to touch on that in a moment. But I want to go back to this intrinsic hostility of the Communist Party to faith and religion. You were saying they’re afraid that people of faith can undermine the legitimacy of the regime. They’re probably right about that.
Mr. Turkel: I agree. They’re right about this. Our policy makers are not recognizing they have figured this out, whereas we have not figured out how to deal with it. We’ve been very shy pushing the freedom agenda. When you listen to the Chinese, this has been very clear and loudly telegraphed by Xi Jinping since 2012, that the country is facing two problems, foreign encirclement and slow growth.
This is why they have been coming up with various actions and responses to tackle the sanctions imposed by the United States government, including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Regarding the foreign encirclement, this is very important for the purposes of our discussion. That foreign encirclement to the Chinese means foreign influence. The foreign influence includes all the freedoms that are dear and near to us. That includes religious freedom, freedom to assembly, freedom of worship, and to be able to teach your faith to the next generation.
All of this is perceived by the Chinese leadership to be a national security threat. Today in China’s leadership’s mindset, they’re focusing on two things. One, they try to push back on foreign encirclement. If you listen to Xi Jinping’s speech several weeks ago, he specifically mentioned foreign encirclement. That’s a code word for their effort to push back against freedom that includes religious freedom.
The other aspect, and this is also equally important. The Chinese have something new since Xi Jinping took office, specifically since late 2014, with the announcement of a national security strategy. It specifically said, “We have to take preemptive action with or without justification, and if necessary with brutal methods. We have seen this.
What do they do? They treat people of faith as though they have a mental illness, and as though they carry infectious disease. They have also been loudly and clearly saying that in order to prevent that infectious disease from spreading and metastasizing to the general population, it needs to be cured. This is how they label Falun Gong practitioners and they often send them to a mental hospital.
This is why they rounded up close to 3 million Uyghurs that includes religious leaders in modern day concentration camps, subjecting them to day in-day out political indoctrination and forcing them to denounce their God. The same thing is happening in Tibet. Reeducation is a code word for human re-engineering. This is how they’ve been accomplishing that preemptive treatment method that has been articulated by the Chinese leadership.
Mr. Jekielek: When we talk about extreme Left-wing ideologies, there is projection. The thing they kind of accuse you of is really the thing they are doing. When I hear this term foreign encirclement, I think of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] which sounds like some pretty serious encirclement.
Mr. Turkel: Yes. The strategy that had been announced and implemented since 2014 had a very strong foreign context. The way that they have been using this project initiated by Xi Jinping is to expand their influence through investment. We’re talking about $1 billion in investments, and also making smaller, weaker countries potentially client states, forcing them to take a position similar to Beijing.
We saw this at the UN Human Rights Council several months ago. There was a proposal being put to vote, which was to debate on the former high commissioner’s report on the Uyghur genocide. We got only 17 votes, and the Chinese got 19 votes. They’re using the investment that they have made in developing countries to gain momentum in international organizations.
The Deputy Director for China at the NSC [National Security Council], Dr. Rush Doshi, wrote a book called, The Long Game. In it, he makes a very simple point. China has been blunting U.S. influence while building their own. This Belt and Road Initiative fits perfectly into that narrative.
The other thing they’re doing is using technology. This is nicely folded into China’s soft power projection. They are exporting the most sophisticated surveillance technology which has been perfected in China proper. Today in China, you cannot do anything without the government monitoring your activity.
We’re talking about 400 million heat vision cameras. Every aspect of your life, your communication with your family, your business associates, your friends, your children, everything has been documented and stored in Chinese government data storage.
The same methods are in the process of being exported. The United States government believes that over 80 countries have already adopted or are in the process of adopting Chinese digital authoritarianism. What does this mean? This should give a chill to the people who chant freedom slogans every day. This will threaten democratic norms. This definitely negatively affects our privacy. Eventually, this will also be used for blackmail.
In some countries like Zimbabwe, the opposition leader cannot plan on running for office again, because the sitting president has been able to get help from Huawei and China’s other tech giants. It’s been taking place in two ways. But there’s a positive side of this whole story as well. As we have been seeing in the news, some client states under the BRI agreement are defaulting their loan payment.
This will make the Chinese very unpopular in some corners of the world. Time will tell, but we can start seeing the potential fallout of this investment that China has made around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Those defaults are the Chinese regime seizing land holdings or the technology that’s been developed.
Mr. Turkel: Absolutely. We often focus on developing countries. Look at the southern European countries. The European Union today is a 27-member organization. Some countries, like Germany and France, are not leading on what is right with respect to China, and some countries are dragging. The European Union has a Greece problem, Portugal problem, and a Spain problem. Those are the countries that have signed on to the BRI.
In some instances, the Chinese are running their ports. We know based on the recent report published by the House Select Committee on China, that they are also using ports for surveillance using their equipment. This is just a whole package. I’m sure that you’re not surprised seeing and hearing these kinds of acts. That’s what they do. That’s what the CCP does. What is disturbing is that even with the backdrop of all the things we know, the policy makers are not being bold and strategic.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s bookmark this. Now, we’re going to talk about this letter that you and the commissioners wrote to Congress about…I’ll leave that as a surprise. Before we go there, I want to highlight that the mandate of USCIRF is international. It doesn’t just focus on America. It focuses on everywhere, which is one of the reasons we’re talking about outside countries. Please give us a quick overview of what the report found.
China is by far the largest violator of religious freedom and that’s why we’re going to focus on this. But there are other areas too. When you gave your speech at the announcement of the report, you mentioned Nigeria. We have covered these massacres of Nigerian Christians quite extensively in The Epoch Times. Please tell us about that and some of the general findings that are of particular concern.
Mr. Turkel: China, of course, has been the focus, and the trend line in China is disturbing. In 2022, we find that China has ratcheted up its repressive policies, specifically on four groups. With the Uyghur Muslims, the genocide is still underway. With the Tibetan Buddhists, they are forcing them to go through forced brainwashing sessions. We still don’t know the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama.
With the Falun Gong practitioners we have reports of over 170 deaths within that community. The Chinese have never loosen up. This has been a decades-long oppression that the Falun Gong community has been enduring in China. Another one is equally important, which is China’s targeted attack on the Catholic community. The Catholic Church around the world, including the Vatican, has not shown a willingness to make it better for the Catholics in China. The Chinese bishops in China have not been approved and endorsed by the Vatican, even though there is an agreement between China and the Vatican that has been renewed. We only know one provision, which is that China agrees with the Vatican’s involvement in the bishop appointment. Instead, they’re forcing the Chinese bishops to sign a pledge of allegiance to the Patriotic Catholic Association.
Those are the four key findings that we reported. In addition to China, we have also reported some disturbing developments in Nigeria and India. In the case of Nigeria, as a result of government inaction, the Christian community, and in some instances the Muslim community has been subject to atrocity crimes. We have been recommending the State Department to designate Nigeria as a CPC [Country of Particular Concern]. We have not been successful.
Mr. Jekielek: A country of particular concern. That’s right.
Mr. Turkel: The next one is the special watch list. India is another interesting case with some concerning developments being identified and reported in this year’s report. That includes the Indian government’s Hindu nationalism-oriented policy with respect to Christians, and specifically to Muslims.
Outside of Indonesia, by population, India has the largest Muslim population. This is Mahatma Gandhi’s India. Today, a country that not too long ago had a Muslim president, bans intermarriage between Hindus and Muslims, at least in one region. These are the two important examples that we have been publicly disagreeing on with the United States government, specifically our counterparts at the State Department, that we should call it what it is, while still trying to maintain a diplomatic relationship.
We have strategic partnership in the case of India. Of course, India is an important country in our strategic approach to China. But at the end of the day, friends are supposed to be honest with each other. We should be able to talk about the problem. The responses that we often get from India are quite ugly. The commissioners and policy team have been subject to attacks. Instead of doing that, they should look at where they can make improvements.
We have also called out the persecution of religious minorities in Afghanistan, Syria, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Those are the countries, but especially Afghanistan. It’s kind of unique. We recommend it for an entity of particular concern designation [EPC].
I also like to report that in some countries we are seeing some positive developments. I cover Central Asia as well. We’ve been involved and very engaged with the diplomatic corps in those countries. They have been willing to sit down with us and listen to our concerns. I even visited Central Asia last April. I’m about to make another trip at some point this year.
At the end of the day, this is something very important for countries to know that we’ve been highlighting. When you see simple respect for religious groups, and if you leave people alone to practice their religion or adhere to their spiritual life, you naturally achieve social stability, harmony and peace. Whenever you suppress, you end up spending more money on domestic security than the national defense, much like China does. Beefing up the police force, rounding up religious practitioners, sending them to mental hospitals, or engaging in organ harvesting is not the way to deal with your own population.
Mr. Jekielek: There is a new bill that Congressman Chris Smith sponsored related to the organ harvesting that actually has some teeth, and attempts to stop that. Let’s go to your letter first. You’re proposing that people not be allowed to lobby on behalf of communist China. You noted that it was unthinkable to do that on behalf of the Soviet Union back in the day. What’s going on here? Probably the single, largest source of dollars these days is the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Turkel: In our government system, lobbying is permitted and is constitutionally allowed. We have a constitutional right to petition our government. But this lobbying became so toxic, that the term is not even popular. People now call it legislative advocacy and government relations. But it’s the same thing—lobbying. But who are they lobbying for?
If you are lobbying for a legitimate cause, if you are lobbying for your own trade association, that’s one thing. But foreign governments doing the bidding for Beijing is something that I personally condemn. It’s unconscionable, and it should stop.
When you look around in Washington, let me start with something that I am personally familiar with. When we are lobbying Congress with zero monetary investment on the Uyghur bills, specifically the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, we faced unbelievable challenges. We’re talking about multinational corporations having no problem funding the lobbying firms and the law firms. They were busy. We’re talking about all the big names, as reported in the New York Times.
Nike, Apple, and all those big guys who have made a ton of money in China trying to stop our government from making it illegal to consume slave labor-produced products. It’s perfectly acceptable and reasonable for former government officials to engage in government relations lobbying activities, but they have to watch out who their client is. You may end up representing all the Chinese Big Techs. In one case, former Senator Barbara Boxer ended up returning the money that she contributed to the Biden inauguration committee because of her work for ZTE.
People should do their due diligence, and there have been attempts. Our intention is to hopefully stop our government officials, policy experts, and government relations experts from doing the bidding of a hostile regime like the one in Beijing.
Mr. Jekielek: This is something that hits very close to home because you are Uyghur yourself. Your mother is being persecuted as we speak. What is happening with her? It’s a terrible situation.
Mr. Turkel: Thank you for asking. I haven’t seen my mother since my law school graduation 19 years ago. I lost my father last April. Because I have been sanctioned by Xi Jinping’s China, I could not even go home to pay my respects to my late father and hold my mom while we were mourning. That in of itself can explain what kind of personal sacrifice one needs to make in order to advocate for the freedom of the people of China.
In my own case, China retaliated against me because of my service for the American people in my current role. The retaliation was very specific. The U.S. government sanctioned four Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act. They are retaliating by sanctioning me and three other USCIRF commissioners. What did we do? We issued a press statement. That’s it.
If you don’t respond as strongly with a sharp language or even potential consequences, we will continue to see this. I feel very strongly about the hostile government sanctioning of our government officials. I don’t think anyone disputes, those of us who have been sanctioned, former Ambassador Sam Brownback, former Secretary of State Pompeo, and Matt Pottinger, former Deputy National Security Advisor, we all been sanctioned because of our work to defend freedom, defend human rights, defend American values, and defend our national interests. Whereas, we have been sanctioning the Chinese officials, the Russian oligarchs, and the Russian cohorts of Putin for their crimes against humanity and genocide.
There’s a fundamental difference. Therefore, the individuals who have been sanctioned by communist China always said it’s a badge of honor, which is true to some extent. But in my own case, it’s not that easy. What we’re talking about is a hostile regime in Beijing cutting me off from my family and all of my childhood memories. I will never be able to see or enjoy them again, because I am permanently banned from re-entering. I have not been back to China since I left in 1995.
And also, it will make it very difficult for those who are in a business environment. We always joke, “Yes, I was really not planning to go to Beijing Zoo on the summer vacation with my kids.” But we have to condemn it and we have to call it what it is when the Chinese take this kind of retaliatory action.” It is meaningless when you look at it on its face, but the consequences cannot be ignored.
We need to push back. We need to say, “This has to stop. You either make an improvement, stop this genocide, stop misusing the technology, stop enslaving people, stop engaging in organ harvesting, or we’ll continue to go after you, your family, your finances, your travel, and your freedom of movement. But you cannot do the same thing to us.” That kind of strong message needs to be conveyed.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting, because in general, it doesn’t feel like very often anything that is done on this side really forces the regime to change its behavior.
Mr. Turkel: If you don’t press hard, if you let this kind of behavior be normalized, not only will you fail to stop it, but you will keep seeing it happen. Allowing it to become a normal behavior is acceptance. Holding bad actors and perpetrators to account is a very effective way of deterring the same acts from being repeated again.
I’ll give you one example. In the last 10 to 12 years, or maybe the last 50 years, all of the human rights abuses, religious persecution, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing have been committed on the religious groups because we keep failing. We keep breaking our promise of, “Never again.” Since 1945, the criminal regimes and bad actors have not been dissuaded and discouraged from repeating the same crimes.
It’s on us, because we’ve been failing and we continue to believe that we cannot change. But we can change. There are also good instances. Look at the Balkans during the post-Yugoslavia War. It’s a different world. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s a different world. We were able to hold some bad actors to account.
Sudan’s former dictator, Bashir, was charged and delivered justice. We have to be bold and we have to be courageous. When we take a strong, conscionable moral action, and when we show leadership, we will be rewarded. But when we fail to do that, we will be despised. History shows that strong leadership has always been rewarded. Moral leadership has always been rewarded.
This country is in a very unique position. Borrowing Secretary Blinken’s line, “That the world does not organize itself,” means that we have to lead by example. We also have to lead by showing courage.
Mr. Jekielek: I was on a Twitter space recently talking about China related to Taiwan. Is the Taiwan invasion something that might happen in the near future? What are the realities with China and Taiwan? Basically we’re dealing with China, and we’re dealing with a regime that has absolutely no guardrails. There are no moral restrictions.
I was using the Uyghur genocide, and the persecution of the Tibetans and Falun Gong as examples. Some people pushed back, and even here in America said, “No. This is U.S. propaganda against China.” Because we have all these quite substantial internal problems, there are a lot of people saying, “Listen, we have to focus on ourselves. We have our massive problems here.” How do you square this kind of response? I’m talking about well-meaning people here that aren’t specifically looking to dissuade.
Mr. Turkel: I’ve engaged with some of those people as well, both at home and abroad. I do a fair amount of travel both within the United States and around the world, and that’s one of the common questions, even when you make a compelling argument that is supported with facts and evidence. They say, “Yes. This is the U.S. government’s game plan—to hamper China’s rise.”
That is how poorly we have done with public diplomacy and public education. The United States has its own problems and I don’t think we should be shied away. We should also be free to recognize and acknowledge our own problems. Specifically, by investing in Chinese high-tech, we know that we are aiding this genocide. We also need to acknowledge that purchasing goods made with slave labor fuels the Chinese economy and fuels this genocide. We are complicit.
This is something that I never hesitate to say. At the same time, we cannot continue to self-examine while ignoring our global challenges. Americans are good at self-correction. We need to work on our problems. But we should never shy away from calling out bad actors, and criticizing a regime committing genocide and crimes against humanity.
My response to those people is that you can have a healthy debate. This is what America is about. But at the same time, don’t lose sight of the major problems coming our way. Actually, we are a little too late, when you think of the magnitude and the sheer scope of the problem that we are dealing with in respect to China. I feel that we are a little late.
It’s good to have a debate. It’s good to have a healthy conversation, but we have to show leadership. We have to do what we can to at least make improvements. In one area specifically, we should never hesitate to talk about human rights when we are dealing with countries like China.
Because of China’s pressuring our policy makers, our government officials try to put human rights on the back burner. They think by not criticizing China and toning down on human rights, we’ll get China’s cooperation on public health issues like the fentanyl crisis and climate crisis.
Guess what? That’s not how the Chinese government operates. The Chinese leadership and the Communist Party do what is good for the party and what is good for the leadership. They will not do things one way or the other because of our willingness to not criticize them on the human rights issue.
As a global leader, and as a country with a long history defending human rights and religious freedom, we should be bold and courageous, speaking out whenever we see abuses.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned earlier how we thought we were going to change them, and they’ve actually ended up changing us more. I’m very concerned they have changed us into becoming more like them in this moral area as well, which is the reason for some of this complicity. It’s almost a kind of vicious circle. Yes, maybe you have been compromised. Yes, maybe things have gotten worse. Yes, maybe we have done things that are worse than before and we need to deal with them. But we can’t just get into the vicious downward spiral of thinking that way, because then we can never get back our moral high ground.
Mr. Turkel: Yes. I disagree with this notion in public discussion and in our educational system that America is inherently bad and racist. That is a bad idea, and that has to stop. The other point is that America has gotten to the point of being almost unrecognizable in the case of high-tech firms, in the case of Hollywood, in the case of the sports world, and in the case of academia.
Today, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in those four areas who is willing to call out the CCP. Recently, the Apple CEO said that Apple and Chinese people have a symbiotic relationship. And also, we know that the NBA never criticizes China. In fact, the NBA punishes people who criticize the CCP. Hollywood never does anything that remotely annoys the CCP, because the Chinese have managed to make Hollywood believe that it will hurt Chinese people’s feelings.
Academia is the most dishonest corner of American society today. Some professors, afraid of being cut off from access to China, will not be truthful to their students, will not be truthful to the American people, and not be truthful to their consci