The story of a Uyghur freedom fighter in a journalistic career
I would like to share with you a simple but impressive story of a Uyghur lady in exile, who has been fighting with a dragon, the Chinese government, using her broadcasting profession as a weapon. Her name is Gulchehra Abduqeyum Hoja and her people used to call her Gul, which means flower. She is very well known to the Uyghurs because of her unique style in TV programs back home as well as in the Radio Free Asia (RFA) based in Washington, DC, USA. Let’s get to know her a little bit more through her past.
Gul was born in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkistan, which is currently called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to the family of a recognized Uyghur intellectual. She was a precious gift to this family because her parents had her after 8 years of marriage and therefore treated her like a little princess. Later, they also had a son. Gul’s father, Mr Abdulqeyyum Hoja, worked at the Regional Museum as an archaeologist. Therefore, Gul knew nearly every object in that museum through her curiosity and had the opportunity to hear about and access first hand information about Uyghur history through her father’s dedicated career. Her mother Chiman’gul Zikri, was a lecturer at Xin’jinag Medical University in Urumchi and her grandfather, Zikri-al-Pattar, was also famous among Uyghurs, working as a musician and compositor in the field of traditional Muqam, and has composed and contributed a great deal of traditional music for the Uyghur community.
Luckily, Gul having lived with her grandparents and cousins at home had a lot of exposure to Uyghur traditional music and culture before she started school. She was given many opportunities to see famous artists by accompanying her grandparents and family, and watched performances from the beginning, including viewing off stage practices. Such a rich upbringing provided Gul with many chances, in which she was influenced by what her family did and why. These experiences made Gul a happy and thoughtful child, as she was able to learn about culture and history in a dynamic environment.
The image of Gul with her pony-tailed hair and Uyghur Doppa, beautiful voice when reciting poems, extremely sharp memory and response to questions, was a joy to her classmates and tutors. She published her first poem while she was at secondary school and was awarded a special prize. She was a representative of the art and literature association in her school and won prizes at various contests as well. Both she and her tutors hoped that she could enrol into an art school to realize her dream of being an artist. However, her grandfather, who was a remarkable musician himself, opposed her going to art school although he had provided many opportunities to develop her ability in art both at home and among his professional circles. The reason was that, as a calm researcher, he had seen Gul’ s potential and her passion and therefore expected Gul to learn something of more importance to Uyhgurs than art, and he had conviction and trust in her capabilities. Therefore, Gul was not able to attend the art school, even though the regional art college offered her a place while she was still in secondary school. As a teenager, Gul was very upset about this discouragement but having pursued her aspirations as an adult, Gul can now tell us proudly that her grandfather’s decision was the best decision for her overall development in her future life.
She also attended many TV programs with her beautiful dance in various festivals and annual events in her college years too. In 1992, she was chosen to attend “The 7th International Ethnical Dance Festival” in Tokyo, Japan, as the only Chinese college student representative, when in her 2nd year of her undergraduate study, and she won the gold medal in that competition. In 1990s, Gul could be counted as one of the very few students who went abroad to attend such international competitions in China, so she was featured in the regional journal called “Xinjiang youth” with her picture on its cover. Furthermore, she twice won the 1st prizes in national university festivals.
Picture 1. Gul was presenting on XJTV programe (1993)
In 1996, she was invited to be a host in the Newruz festival (Newruz means “Spring” for the central Asian people) which was organized by regional TV station. Because of her exceptional talents, special interest in art, and the various honors and achievements mentioned above, Gul naturally rose to be a star in public at her very young age. She learned diligently from the senior TV presenters during such events, which then motivated and increased her interest in this active career, as she enjoyed working to enrich the lives of her people using this special platform.
Time flies. Gul completed her university life with busy schedules, happy memories and excellent grades in her own major. The faculty at which she studied offered her a teaching position upon her graduation. However, Gul was a “strange” young girl who preferred continuous challenges and was ambitious to explore new things in life. Wanting to follow her own interest and mind, she declined her first job offer, and went to the regional TV station with her graduate diploma and various certificates with huge interest. This incident highlighted that she was a brave young person who dared to knock the door of the person in charge at the station, and introduce herself with confidence about her future and conviction that she would do well with her career in journalism.
Picture 2. Gul was at the cover photo of Xinjiang youth magazine (1992)
Gul started her broadcasting career in the late 1990s after her graduation from the Xinjiang Normal University, with her unique talent and passion of becoming a TV presenter and reporter. At that time, color TV had just become popular in China’s major cities and became a new measurement of one’s status and wealth in Uyghur society too. Gul was the first person in regional TV who has took the interest of children to live TV programs with her special thoughts and activities. Since then Uyghur kids have had their own program where they can sit together with a real broadcaster and listen to the fascinating stories from their ancestor’s times. This program was welcomed nearly by all of the Uyghur children around East Turkistan (the size of which is 1.665 million km²) and therefore Gul had had countless opportunities to travel from North to South of the Tengri Tagh mountain. With this unique Children’s program called “Tengri Tagh Ghunchiliri” (The young flowers of Hantengri) Gul had chances to listen to the innocent voice of Uyghur children and witnessed their lives in all 16 major cities and thousands of villages all over this legendary region.
Thanks to this colourful experience with children of all backgrounds, it increased Gul’ s love for her motherland and her interest in the special role of a TV presenter further, and most importantly it broadened her knowledge on the current situations of Uyghurs as well. The naughty kids, who did not want to go back home after hours of playing outside, would go back to their homes in a hurry once they heard the starting music of Gul’ s “imaginative wonderland”. As a result, that girl who used to appear on TV screens with her beautiful embroidery cap and etles silk dress became a popular image of the Uyghur girls in Chinese mainland TV as well. Because of her familiar image that people have seen from TV, almost every Uyghur family could have recognized Gul wherever she went. Some young people today who grew up with the company of “Tengri Tagh Ghunchiliri” are still able to remember Gul’s style of engaging children and how she had inspired them and became a special person in their lives, with her impressive and interesting stories.
Gul was successful in the beginning of her career by motivating thousands of children to have their own fabulous world of fantasy. In the meantime, she also learned a lot from a number of dedicated researchers and writers on children who had a desire to pass the Uyghur tradition and glamorous historical facts to the younger generation, through Gul’s presentations on the children’s programs. On top of that, her father always expected her to take a sincere approach to learning while making the programmes, believing that she could be the role model of those innocent Uyghur children and youngsters through her work. Therefore, she read many specialist children’s books to increase her knowledge and even travelled to different places in the region to understand the reality of lives firsthand.
Picture 3. Gul with children at the cover photo of “The Young Flowers of Tarim” journal
With the assurance of her success in “Tengri Tagh ghunchiliri”, Gul then worked on bilingual TV programs made in both Chinese and Uyghur languages. She also hosted many regional and national levels of annual celebrations and festivals on TV by cooperating with other mainland Chinese stations. Her special evening program related to the “6.1 Children’s Holiday” was awarded the top prize for 4 years in the Uyghur region and the Chinese mainland. Because of her talents in action, she worked as an actress in a number of films too. During the process of her cooperative work with other TV presenters outside the Uyghur region, Gul got chances to see the lives of Han Chinese who lived in other provinces of China. She had been to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which called as “bingtuan” in mandarin, where China brought tens of thousands of soldiers from other provinces to the Uyghur region every year and trained them as army forces in the name of the stability and prosperity of the region. As a consequence, they occupied enormous land and water resources of this region to produce foods, fruits and other necessities of industrial goods which mainly transported to the Chinese major cities outside of this region beside the rich oil and natural gas.
Nowadays, the size and the importance of “bingtuan” has become equal to the other provinces of China, as it has its own administrative government of all levels, which are directly governed by Beijing. After witnessing the huge difference between the implementation of government policies and various regulations in people’s lives in and outside of the Uyghur region, Gul started to realize that her people were living in a white lie for so long, and many TV programs and news she had been involved were a form of communist propaganda; the so-called socialist ideas which were mostly praised by Uyghurs and other minorities in China and the happy faces of these non-Chinese ethnic groups on TV screens, with their traditional music and dances, have been used as a tool to entertain people while the majority Hans enjoying a different version of “Chinese characteristic socialism”.
In addition, Gul learned more about the true face of the communist party while working as a reporter on the news on the “Ghulja massacre” which happened on the 5th of February 1997 in the city of Ghulja, which was called yili in mandarin, “Hong Kong’ s successful return to the Chinese mainland”, the death of Deng xiaoping and the propaganda on defeating “Falun Gong” nationwide, through their media efforts. In 1998, Gul was invited to the “China rich list” by Hongkong HuaYu TV station, where Gul worked as a main program host for a film series with 12 episodes. After witnessing the freedom given to the filmmakers and reporters in this film, Gul had another opportunity to compare the difference between how she worked in her region by strictly supporting the government propaganda and the freedom she had and what she saw in other areas of the country she lived and served.
Nevertheless, the most striking transformation taken place in her inner thoughts was, when her team in the regional TV station and another team from Chinese’s Shandong province had worked together on a series of 10 reality shows about a month. This government sponsored series mainly focused on how the staff and workers were sent from Shandong province to aid Uyghurs’ regional development and helped them to build a prosperous and harmonious Xinjiang. The second part of this reality show was about praising the benefits of sending Uyghur school kids into major Chinese cities at an early age in order to gradually implement the unified Chinese-only education policy in the entire Uyghur region. She felt so powerless when she received the modified version of her original reports.
Although she felt very strongly about the differences between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in terms of living conditions, education, job and business opportunities, as well as healthcare issues, she had admitted that she did not have enough courage yet to reject their demands regarding what she wanted to say in any of her reports, because as a ordinary person, she wanted to keep her loved profession too. All programs they produced had to be agreed and signed by each person in charge prior to its broadcast and they must keep the same voice with the state news agencies, which is a propaganda agency of the Chinese communist party (CCP).
Gul struggled so much to work silently against her own will of serving her people with lies over and over again using her role in TV. This feeling of “cheating her people” made her sleepless sometimes because of her consciousness and her sense of responsibility. Just after experiencing such an uncomfortable time Gul felt in her cooperation with Shandong TV station in Chingdao, she had been given a new opportunity to go abroad for 3 months. As usual, she had signed a contract and agreed to come back after her visit to Europe.
During her short visit to Europe, Gul witnessed the fair treatment of people regardless of their nationalities, beliefs or other social and cultural backgrounds. By human nature, many of us are reluctant to look for the information which matters most and are curious to find out the why. So did our Gul. She searched for the RFA news website, which she had heard of while she was living in China. She then heard the voice of freedom; The voice of brave hearts who have been fighting for the freedom of oppressed Uyghur people in her country. These genuine plea and call for freedom surely made her to think about her own vision in life once again. Gul burst out crying when she heard the shouting voices of Uyghur demonstrators in Munich, Germany, who organized demonstration against the Chinese occupation and its brutal rule over Uyghur people, since 1949.
Uyghurs were calling “We want freedom! We want Chinese communists to get out of our motherland!…” That voice was the voice of millions of her people who have been living under the harsh control of the communist regime; those were the voices of people who lost their loved career just because they spoke or wrote something to advocate equality and fair implementation of the Chinese government’s policies towards every Chinese citizens; those were the voices of people who lost their freedom only because they offered their daily prayers at the workplaces, schools, hospitals or other communal areas or taught their kids Qur’an or send them to learn about Islam after their state school courses, or simply observed the holy month of Ramadan. Those are the voices today of some moderate Uyghur academics who were imprisoned for life, just because they refused the fake promises of their government to improve Uyghurs’ and other citizens’ lives based on Chinese constitutions!
Those voices of voiceless people truly touched her heart and made her speechless. Understandably, as those were the genuine voices of her own heart too, which had been telling her through many unjust realities in her home country because of her ethnicity, even though Gul and her co-workers had to follow the state propaganda during their daily job in China, in spite of their own ideas.
So, Gul started to dwell on what she had to do in her future career; she had struggled to choose between being the voice of voiceless and being a trumpet of the communist party. She was torn inside as she might not be able to see her beloved parents and friends if she chose a different path, the path to the freedom of speech and fight against CCP. Meanwhile, she also thought about the innocent children in her TV programs and her dedicated colleagues and the applauds of people in front of TV screen…Each and every thing she participated in until her visit to Europe.
But she took the difficult decision in the end, the decision that can represent her genuinely and enable her to become a strong voice for her oppressed people, at the cost of losing much more. After listening to her own heart, Gul made a great decision in her life without knowing what would happen in this totally different world in her future, in Sep 2001.
What she knew clearly was that, she could now say the words she wanted to, without edition according to the communist regulations, and she could broadcast the real happiness and sorrows of her people back home. Therefore, she called the RFA Uyghur service by herself, and told them that she was willing to become a news reporter at that broadcasting company. The most senior staff and the founder of the Uyghur service at RFA was so delighted to hear Gul’s brave phone call and agreed for her to join them right away. Gul can still remember that the director of RFA at that time replied to her call by telling her the following: “Welcome to the RFA. We are very delighted to hire a well-known reporter of the Chinese news agencies here in Washington.
This is a success of democracy over the dictatorship of communist regime; this is the triumph of freedom!” However, some staff members at Uyghur Service raised their concern about the future situation of Gul’ family in Urumchi, and suggested that she should change her name at work if she wanted to. However, our Gul did not give it a second thought and expressed her own decision to stay being herself. So, Gul’s personal freedom started with a huge price. The local Chinese government in Urumqi carried out their revenge on her behavior, confiscating her parent’s passports, and didn’t allow them to travel anywhere outside of China. They issued a public notice in which Gul had been labelled as a “separatist” and all her past TV programs in China were banned or destroyed.
But, Gul did not regret her decision because she believed that silence towards oppression is someone’s closeness to death. Instead, she has become a true voice of her own people, and is letting the world hear their sorrows, whilst China has been spending millions of dollars to silence the voice of Uyghurs and other Chinese democrats against its brutality nationwide.
Fifteen years passed since Gul chose to live and work in the US. The more Gul missed her home and the smell of the streets in Urumchi, the more she moved herself forward to the fight against the dictatorship of the Chinese government. Gul is now a mother of three bright children and proudly doing the career, which she dreamed of from her early years. Ups and downs in life have not changed Gul’ s motivation and her crystal clear aim of work for the benefit of her own people.
Therefore, she channelled all the burdens of homesickness and other sorrows into her optimism towards the future of her homeland, through her consistent work style. She travelled with the members of Uyghur freedom fighters around the globe to maximize their voice of freedom; She has interviewed many foreign public figures too in order to let the world hear the voice of oppressed nations through their voices. She allowed the world to see the cries and the sorrows of countless Uyghur mothers who lost their children nder the false accusation of being “separatists or terrorists” by the Chinese government, and never stopped to show her support to them.
Picture 4. Gul was interviewing Lantos Human Rights Laureate Mrs. Rebiya Kadeer, the president of World Uyghur Congress (WUC), after the award ceremony. (USA, 2015)
She has always stood up with her people no matter how big the difficulties are. Another significant change Gul has made during her career was that, she beame the very first hijabi broadcaster amongst Uyghur reporters and has shown such a distinctive protest against Chinese’s cultural assimilation towards Uyghurs.
Picture 5. Gul was interviewing an Uyghur activist at the NED workshop (2013, USA)
Picture 6. Gul was participating in the petition to free an Uyghur mother, Mrs Patigul Ghulam (2016), who has been repeatedly threatened and prosecuted by the local Chinese authority as she was determined to look for her missing son, after his unknown disappearance since “5th of July, 2009”
This is also one of the exciting decisions she has proudly made, as she struggled to wear it before. She has always stood up with her people no matter how big the difficulties are. Although she has freedom of religious practice in the free world, because of her previous popular image among Uyghurs she was afraid of being regarded as an “oppressed woman” in the public eye.
Surprisingly, most of her audience congratulated her presence with hijab and appreciated her extra courage against the current law of banning hijab as a part of counter-terrorism law, which considered hijab as an illegal practice in East Turkistan. To her, hijab is now a symbol of freedom and equality in this society she lives; it is also a reminder of her own responsibility both at home and her work as it has brought joy and inner peace to her current life.
Gul has actually earned much higher respect and trust from all levels of Uyghurs with her overall role as a Uyghur Muslim broadcaster than she did before, who can truly represent their voices. Because of her particular voice, Uyghurs around the world are able to recognize her wherever she make phone calls for an interview or other reasons, assuring Gul of her devotion to serve for her people with exceptional pleasure and pride. She is now working as a senior broadcaster, TV host and broadcast journalist at the RFA, the only international broadcasting station for Uyghurs.
Picture 7. Gul was in the preparation of “Achil” Universal TV program at RFA studio (2016)
As for her decision of leaving China, Gul said that she knew her father, the best role model of her life, would not stop her to make such a decision 15 years ago, but she herself did not dare to speak to him as she was the one who would be the first to break down in tears, because of her special love and respect towards her father. She still remembers the only word her dad said to her over the phone about her decision was, “My brave daughter…God will be happy with you once you serve His servants well.” That is a proverb which frequently used by Uyghurs, to express their appreciation towards someone who did good deeds to the people they love.
Gul remembers all her parents and grandparent’s philosophy in life were as such: There are three different people in this world. The first type of people are the ones who live their lives for their own good only. The second types are the people who live their lives for the benefit of their community or their own nation. The third types are the people who live their lives for the benefit of all mankind.” So, her father once told Gul that our family have not yet become of the 3rd category, but gladly we do not belong to the first one either and we should not. So, this family tradition, perhaps, could be the most influential part of her upbringing and guidance of Gul’s attitude in her present and future life.
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Dear readers, we have approached a closure of this life story of a courageous Uyghur freedom fighter. So, please allow me to type a few more lines which represent what are my views after interviewing our role model and the most pleasant flower of our Uyghur people.
Gul was a patriot when she was living in the occupied East Turkistan and worked wholeheartedly to the betterment of Uyghurs and the lives of other Chinese nationals. However, she was not given the freedom of speech and expression with her own willingness in that worldly famous but brutal nation. She is a patriot now, as this adopted nation, the United States of America, has not only given her such freedom, but also shown her and encouraged her to be a voice of voiceless and care about other people’s lives too with its firm values about equality, human rights and democracy regardless of one’s ethnic, cultural, religious or other different backgrounds. She also loves her own country, the East Turkistan, the most, where Gul and all other members of oppressed Uyghurs can also enjoy the freedom and democracy, sometime in the near future. So, I believe that nothing can prevent Gul to fight against any types of dictatorship on behalf of the Uyghurs and other nations around the globe.
Finally, I would like to convey Gul’s last message of this interview to you: “I believe that we can make great differences if only we are willing to. I hope that the lucky people who made their life journey to the democratic countries in the West, must remember their own roots and responsibilities of always remembering the sufferings and sorrows of their people back home, and help each other to make their world a brighter and safer place too. Otherwise, people can earn their daily bread anywhere in the world, if they just work for their own good.”
Read Gulchehra Abduqeyum Hoja’s life story in Uyghur language, please visit at: