The Long Road to Confronting China’s War on Religion: Part III

VOC’s China Studies Research Fellow, Ethan Gutmann, wrote in Real Clear Politics about the war on religious freedom in China:

“It’s morning in Istanbul, but Joseph is reliving his morning routine in the camp, before the 16-hour shift starts. After the prisoners had sung Communist songs for their breakfast, the Chinese guards played a video for them shot in cinema verité style. It began with Chinese plainclothes agents tackling Uyghurs, cramming them into unmarked cars, and pulling bags over their heads.

Then, the camera would pan away, revealing, not China, but a foreign street with signs in German, Arabic, or English. Joseph says the film was a tease: Run away. Please try it. We’re everywhere. Even Washington, D.C. 

“Will there be television cameras filming us in Washington?”

“Could be, Joseph. Look, you are the first Christians to make it out of the camps and into America. The first Kyrgyz family. Maybe even the first intact family.”

“You will make sure there is no Chinese media there, right?”

“I can’t do that Joseph. The U.S. is a free country.”

Joseph’s wife, Julie, can’t hold back: “Can we cover up our faces then?”


Joseph smiles in a sad way: “Tell me again. Why do we have to do this?”

“It’s called ‘media training.’ We are just trying to get you used to the camera. Look Joseph, the press is interested in you. If the press weren’t interested, we could be waiting in Istanbul much longer.”

Joseph’s birth name is Ovalbek Turdakun. I use his adopted Christian name because I don’t want to jinx his run of nearly supernatural luck. The first miracle was that Julie got him out of the Xinjiang camps in under a year. Second, with their 9-year-old son, the family crossed the Chinese border into Kyrgyzstan, where I first interviewed him. Third, the “Christmas Miracle,” – on Dec. 15, 2021, 48 hours before the bag was scheduled to go over Joseph’s head, my friend Conor Healy got the family out of Bishkek and on a flight to Istanbul.

Our conversation is being shared remotely with a British media expert. Sensing that Joseph is warmed up, she speaks Chinese: 

“Joseph, there’s one question that any American reporter will ask you: We’ve all heard from the Chinese government that the ‘re-education camps’ are over. That you have all been retrained. Now they have shut the camps down. There is no more forced labor. Everyone has gone home.”     

Joseph is silent for a moment. Then he starts sketching on the notepad in front of him, and his voice drops: “Let me tell you about my camp, about the buildings where I lived.”

Read the full article on Real Clear Politics.