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Memoir tells of author's personal experience of the repression of China's Uyghurs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A story we heard from Gulchehra Hoja begins with the answer to a seemingly simple question. Where are you from?

GULCHEHRA HOJA: How to begin? First, let me give you a little tour for where is my home country located.

INSKEEP: She's from western China in Xinjiang province - at least that's where I'd find her home city if I looked on the globe on my desk. But that same city looks a little different on the map in Hoja's mind. In describing your home, you did not say my province. You said my country. Why do you say that?

HOJA: We proudly know our country was free.

INSKEEP: She grew up in China's Uyghur region, and she stresses its differences in language, religion and culture with other parts of China. Her father was an archaeologist familiar with a Uyghur version of history, but her schools taught her a Chinese nationalist story. A reminder of who was in charge was never any farther than the clock on the wall.

HOJA: They using Beijing time in Urumqi - our time difference is two hours.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a famous thing about China. There's only one time zone for the entire country...

HOJA: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Even though it's immense.

HOJA: Yes, it's very uncomfortable, making your life messy.

INSKEEP: Hoja's memoir is called "A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs." It tells her personal experience of a very public story, the repression of China's Uyghurs. Though Xinjiang is an internationally recognized part of China, she says her region felt colonized by the central government. Ethnic Chinese kept moving into her mountainous region when she was a girl. Yet she also describes a period when she was able to embrace Uyghur culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOJA: I learned dance from very, very young age. I was the school star.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: She danced in loose and colorful traditional clothes, and she caught the attention of the Chinese authorities. The government chose her to become a kind of ambassador for Uyghurs, or rather, for the idea of Uyghurs as part of China.

HOJA: And then they choosing me to represent China to go to international dance festival in Japan.

INSKEEP: Did you think at the time, I'm being used here?

HOJA: No. That time, I was so proud. But when we prepared to go to Japan, they teach us, if the Japanese people ask you where you're from, who you are, you must say I am Chinese citizen. But unfortunately, when I start to speak, the Japanese students asking me totally different questions, making me so nervous. They were saying, why are you dressed differently? Why are you speaking differently?

INSKEEP: Their questions raised questions in her mind. And this is a vital part of Hoja's story. Eventually, she became a journalist, reached the United States, and got a job broadcasting to people back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: She worked for Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-supported news service.

HOJA: Using our own language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOJA: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: She also spoke out against China's treatment of Uyghurs, meeting officials in the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration. The Chinese government that once showcased her publicly accused her of terrorist activities. And in 2018, she heard the news.

HOJA: I received call from our neighbor's daughter. She told me all my relatives arrested because of me, my work.

INSKEEP: It's hard to verify much from western China, but she says two dozen of her relatives were arrested at about the same time. They were later released, but in the years since, she has only been able to talk to her mother on monitored phone calls.

HOJA: Every time we talk, we cannot talk very sensitive stuff. I just ask, how are you? Did you drink your, you know, medicines? How is my father? - all those regular question repeating, you know. And she just says we are OK. We are totally OK. Don't worry. Just live you life, you know? She repeating that. And mostly she repeat, be careful. I don't know why. Maybe the Chinese government threatening them.

INSKEEP: Two years ago, China showed her mother and brother on state TV, denouncing her.

HOJA: After many years, I saw their face. I was just happy to see them, you know? I can - able to see their face.

INSKEEP: You didn't even worry about their words, did you?

HOJA: No, no. I even don't remember, just feeling guilty. (Crying) They changed the...

INSKEEP: If you need a moment, please take it.

HOJA: Sorry.

INSKEEP: No, it's OK. If you need a moment, take it.

HOJA: Yeah. They just - they are doing best to encouraging me, to supporting me, you know? You didn't do anything wrong. They giving this message.

INSKEEP: They said that? They were able to say that?

HOJA: They - no, I can feel.

INSKEEP: You feel it?

HOJA: Yes. The connection between child and mother is really magical. Even they don't say any words, you can understand their silence. You...

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of what is possible now. You note that in recent decades, China has changed the demographics of what you view as your country. Independence of some kind doesn't seem possible. What do you hope for?

HOJA: You know, I want to give the message to the Chinese government - even your lockdown so many millions of people, even you kill them, you cannot kill their hope, and you cannot kill their dream. Even they monitor them 24/7, but you never know what is inside their heart. Our country is alive in our heart. No power can change that.

INSKEEP: Gulchehra Hoja is the author of "A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs." Thank you so much.

HOJA: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to make you cry.

HOJA: I'm sorry. When I talk about my parents, I always get emotional.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.