Are Uyghurs different from Ukrainians? — Q&A with Rayhan Asat

Foreign Affairs

Rayhan Asat and her brother worked for better Uyghur-Han relations in China. Then he was forcibly disappeared. So Rayhan was outraged by the recent visit of the UN’s human rights chief to Xinjiang that became a photo op for Beijing. She also had some pointed criticism for SupChina.

Image by Dylan Wong

At the end of May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visited Xinjiang, after which she gave statements that were completely free of substance, which the Chinese government is now using as proof that its critics are wrong.

How does this feel to Uyghur activists and Uyghurs who have relatives in detention camps? And what can the world do to end the crisis, or even just get one detainee freed? To answer these and other questions, I called up human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat.

Before studying at Harvard and York universities, she grew up in a bilingual environment in Xinjiang, and did her undergraduate degree in China. Rayhan and her brother, Ekpar Asat, were both somewhat assimilated into Han society, while maintaining their Uyghur identity to the extent allowed by the Chinese government. They not only embraced but took pride in having a dual identity, and wanted to serve as cultural ambassadors between the Uyghur and Han communities.

Ekpar was a successful tech entrepreneur and model citizen who took part in friendship exchanges between the U.S. and China. But since 2016, he has been imprisoned without trial in a detention camp, mostly incommunicado. Rayhan is now in exile in the United States, where she has become an accidental activist trying to get him released, and pushing for change to China’s repressive policies that target Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

I spoke to Rayhan by video call on June 2. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea interview series.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

What is your reaction to the visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to China?

What seems to have happened is that Beijing has used it as a kind of propaganda opportunity. One Chinese diplomat actually said that Beijing’s Xinjiang policies have been “not only vindicated, but justified” by this visit.

What are you and the exile Uyghur community thinking?

As you know, this crisis has been going on for six years now. Many of us have demanded the UN High Commissioner to release the reports and especially her findings because it adds to the extensive body of evidence on atrocities, except she hasn’t.

Leading up to her departure for this trip, there was just so much lack of transparency about her upcoming trip. Many people didn’t have confidence that this would be some sort of investigation or that it would further the legal cause.

As human beings, I think we tried to be optimistic about any outcome; I thought that she could be the hero we were seeking, that she would rise to the occasion and truly surprise us.

But it turned out worse than I had thought. I knew the Chinese government would use it against us, the Uyghurs. She gave the Chinese government exactly what it’s seeking: a validation of its policy and framing it successfully as counterterrorism, when it was actually about…genocide, crimes against humanity. It is an assault against your identity.

I’m still processing it. Part of me is still in disbelief, Michelle Bachelet is a torture survivor herself, who helped opposition leadership confront the dictatorship and human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime, and opened a museum called Museum of Memory and Human Rights to confront human right abuses that took place under the Chilean dictatorship. Unfortunately, I felt like I didn’t see that woman, I didn’t see that leader on that trip. What I saw was a diplomat, not a UN high commissioner for human rights.The two words human rights were missing on that trip.

Right. It was very much a kind of diplomatic show.

What I think really baffled me is the Chinese government used this trip as a way to say, “Look, the Western plot failed.” It pretended like she saw the real Xinjiang and that she told us exactly what she saw; that Xinjiang is a beautiful place; that people live very happily there and our counterterrorism policies should remain in place.

I’m worried it sends a chilling message to the victims and survivors. What comes next?

I’m worried that the Chinese government will take her silence and somewhat complicit statements as a form of endorsement of its policy. I’m really worried about the far-reaching ramifications of this trip, especially because of her silence.

Ekpar’s campaign for ethnic unity in Xinjiang, in October 2015, six months before his enforced disappearance. Image courtesy of Rayhan Asat.

I don’t know how much interaction you’ve had in the last few months with official China. One of the things that strikes me is that it’s putting so much energy into criticizing its critics, into saying that anybody who’s criticizing it has an ulterior motive, or is a Western hypocrite.

Wouldn’t it be much easier if it just released a few people? Like your brother, for example?

It puts so much energy and money and effort into denying criticism, but there doesn’t seem to be any effort at all into actually understanding or dealing with the basis of the criticism?

You are right. The Chinese government goes to such great lengths to silence its critics, activists, and human rights defenders. Ironically, the best way to go about silencing critics is to release people’s family members. Many people within the Uyghur diaspora community, as far as I’m aware of, didn’t want to do this. Nobody wants to become an activist. People just want to have a normal life. I don’t want my entire life to be told in front of a camera and TV or on platforms like this, but the Chinese government just doesn’t seem to understand that rationale.

Unfortunately, some of the people who are in positions of power seem to be incredibly irrational. It’s hard to reason with them. Like where is the common sense? I can tell them “This goes against your own interests,” but even offering such an analysis doesn’t seem to resonate with them.

I’m still hopeful, though, not simply because hope is the last defense we activists and human rights defenders must hold, but because the pressure we’re applying is working to an extent.

I think the fact that there’s a leadership change [in the Xinjiang government], some of the visible signs of repression are gone, some of the temporary camps are gone.

Obviously, the Chinese government is trying to hide the atrocities that took place and continue to happen. But the international pressure and criticism is working to some extent. However, I think the Chinese government is becoming more sophisticated. A deep concern of mine is that now it’s using prison sentences to provide a veneer of legitimacy to its camp system. It’s using the color of law to say, “So and so is sentenced for X, Y, Z. Yes. So they’re criminals.”

In a way, they’re setting themselves up the same way prison systems across the world are set up. What sets the Chinese government apart at the moment is that its prisons are for collective punishment. People are in camps for simply being who they are.

But by sentencing people for crimes, it changes the narrative a little bit. It’s confusing for the average reader of the news. That’s why I feel like we’re receiving mixed messages and signals from the Chinese government. On the one hand, it indicated that maybe things will improve, especially when the new governor came in. He made some statements that are reflective of the Party’s policy, he even alluded to examining some of the policies that were implemented over the past few years. But then in the same line, you hear him praise past leadership.

And personally, I try to always communicate in good faith. I criticize the Chinese government when it’s due, but I give it credit if it does the right thing. I am not implacably hostile to the Chinese government. But I do wish to address the atrocity. We need to be very careful and cautious not to normalize these camps just because the Chinese government is calling them prisons.

So to your point, it’s not simply easier to silence the critics by releasing people. The Chinese government just keeps shooting itself in the leg. I think it’s digging its own grave further and further. There’s one way to exit this downward spiral, and it’s by using restorative justice. The means of restorative justice: confronting its past and current atrocities. It needs to build some sort of mechanism where it would compensate the victims to restore its own image in the eyes of the world community but also restore the dignity and freedom of the victims. Would it do that? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Ekapr in his former life as a tech entrepreneur and cultural bridge builder, here with a Tencent government relations manager in 2015. Image courtesy Rayhan Asat.

I am a terrible cynic, but that sounds unlikely.

Can I ask you, have you been able to talk to your brother?

Not me personally, but my family has. But I think the cruelty has become increasingly obvious. Even when my brother was allowed to call, and these calls are incredibly sporadic, we only get one minute, Jeremy…just think about that for a second. What can we talk about in one minute after years? He’s also held in the Aksu prison camp, far from home.

It’s like, “Hi, here’s your brother. He’s fine. Talk to him for a minute.”

It’s more like they’re doing it as a procedure, “Oh, look, he gets to make calls.” But it’s only one minute. What can you talk about?

What do you make of the U.S. implementing a new system of verification that assumes any company with products and parts coming from Xinjiang is engaging in forced labor unless explicitly proven otherwise?

Do you think this is a good way for the U.S. to try to put pressure on China to effectively help the Uyghurs?

Beijing is, of course, not pleased with this latest move. And I often worry that in America, we have this tendency to do things that feel good, that give Americans a sense of moral high ground and righteousness, but they may not actually create change. Maybe it will make things worse?

I know what you mean. To be honest, when I go to D.C., I realize sometimes, it’s like everybody is an activist. And then I talk to my former corporate colleagues and I see a whole different agenda. And I always tell myself, “You don’t want to become an activist. You need to be very careful to understand that you need to see the world pragmatically as well. You cannot look at it with a sheer idealistic perspective.”

That being said, I think that the new U.S. move seems like the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act [enacted in 2021], that’s exactly what the law was designed to achieve.

We’re going to presume any source of goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur region has been tainted with forced labor. You, as a company, need to prove to me otherwise. Why should we, especially given the pervasiveness of forced labor, take another approach? Some of my friends whom I have consulted have raised questions like, “Do you think that this would hurt Uyghur companies?” Or, “Do you think that it would also hurt Xinjiang’s economy, if we’re going to go down the no business with Xinjiang route?” And so I entertained that question profoundly. I thought about it, but I think it’s coming from this presumption that Uyghurs have these wonderful job opportunities. That’s what we’re depriving them of with these new rules. But that’s not the reality. At this point, 10 to 15 percent of the Uyghur population are in the camps. The better jobs, the wealthy, the high-quality jobs go to Han people.

There is an outright discrimination in terms of employment opportunities against the Uyghurs. So let’s not assume that companies operate under the premise of providing good jobs for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This is not just about Uyghur forced labor. I mean, slavery should be outlawed. It doesn’t matter where they are.

Nation states, including the Chinese government, recently signed on to two international labor conventions. Which is something that the Chinese government hasn’t done for decades. I think the reason behind this is that a forced labor allegation is very powerful and it has been accused of using forced labor. So it’s trying to at least appear to be in compliance with international conventions. Now, in some ways, you can take that as positive progress as a result of our pressure on the Chinese government.

But in the long term, I think what the U.S. government has done is to create an anti-slavery human rights regime. It’s not just about Uyghur forced labor, but it has to start somewhere. We cannot keep engaging with these companies because we’re afraid of losing the Chinese market.

What I really want to see, whether by Chinese companies or Western companies, is for them to be ambassadors for defending human dignity. I want the companies not to lobby against the bill, but in favor of the bill. I want Western companies to be used as a powerful tool to say to their Chinese counterparts that they cannot engage in forced labor. “My law, where I am incorporated, prohibits me from doing so.”

And if you look at the legislative history and practice of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the reason that the Chinese companies have now become more compliant in terms of anti-corruption is because the U.S. started curbing it 30 years ago. And now we’re seeing the fruits of that development.

What can people outside of China do to help get your brother and others like him out of concentration camps?

I don’t want to sugarcoat it and say, “Oh, SupChina is doing a good job.” You are giving platforms to promote the Uyghur cause and put their struggle in the spotlight. You are giving a platform to a few Uyghur-related articles. That’s too minimal an effort. But look at the last episode that you’ve had a Uyghur person speak on your podcast, that was me in 2021.

I mean, this has to be a conversation that we need to have constantly and repeatedly. That’s the bare minimum that we can do. I just find it quite troubling when you at SupChina only speak about it here and there. That kind of halfhearted approach doesn’t advance the Uyghur cause.

So this is my fair criticism, if you will, to make sure that this issue is highlighted over and over again until we see real change happening.

Second, you have many people surrounding your organization. Whether it’s devout followers of SupChina or people who you engage with, they always talk about how important it is to promote the U.S.-China relationship because it is one of the most important relationships of the century. Okay. I agree with that to a large degree. But can you also claim to be an ambassador for human rights while you’re doing that? You’re promoting that relationship. Can you also say, “Hey, you are making me look terrible.”

I’m pro constructive engagement myself. Not engagement at all costs that involves disregarding human suffering. I feel like that’s something still lacking. And I’ve argued with some people on this issue because you cannot just always say good things, never criticize China, and go on Chinese state media and pretend everything is okay. You are no better than being complicit by doing that.

If people go on Russian state media right now, how would the international community react? What makes genocide less of a crime than war crime? Because it’s not so overt in our eyes? We saw the newly leaked documents. We saw all those people’s eyes. Now come and tell me, “Oh, but because it’s hard to see the proof.” Now you’ve seen it. What are you going to do?

If every person just fights for one Uyghur person and keeps repeating the message so that you cannot say, “So, we’ve talked about it already.” I just feel that, whether it’s through sanctions or something along those lines, I would love to see the current economic and political mechanisms deployed against the Russian crisis to be deployed for China.

Everyone agrees it was justified to sanction Russian oligarchs. When can we say that it’s okay to sanction Chinese oligarchs who are benefiting from the Uyghur crisis? I know this is going to be controversial, but people are talking about potentially sanctioning Russian Olympians. And here we just had the Chinese government host the Winter Olympics. I mean, just think about it for a second. Why are there certain measures that are okay to be deployed against another country, but for China those same measures are not even considered? We cannot bring it up. As a moderate voice, I am also cautious when I don’t have to be.

Maybe because the money is different? Much more of it is at stake in China?

The Chinese market is much larger, we all know that. But I think these are difficult questions that every person should pose to their own conscience, and ask, “Why do we have this double standard?”

Last question. If we want to be super-pragmatic, how do we start alleviating this crisis on an individual basis? What can be done to get your brother, specifically, released?

I think making sure the Chinese government understands that releasing one individual as a goodwill gesture, especially somebody who has become such a lovable and likable face of this crisis, is not a sign of weakness.

If anything, it shows that the Chinese government is interested in engaging in diplomacy with the United States. It would improve the U.S.-China relationship. I don’t know why the Chinese government is not seeing it this way. Second, many people, including you at SupChina, and even myself, have been proponents of reinstating Fulbright programs for China. Maybe we should bring that up. How can we be a spokesperson for reinstating a scholarship program when you detain one of the Uyghurs who came on a similar program? If you continue the situation, it’s not going to advance your interests.

Chinese students come here and they benefit from these scholarship programs, but Uyghurs come here and then they are punished for it. That’s not right. And the last thing I would say, I mean, Jeremy, you know me and my entire life story, we’ve tried to be model Chinese citizens, and yet our family has not been spared. What kind of message is the Chinese government sending here? I mean, these solutions seem like common sense. Why are they not getting it? What more could we do? I don’t want to be forever engaging in some sort of hostage negotiation with them.

And I just feel like people, especially those who take part in this Track II dialogue, can’t even ask for the release of one person. Somebody who came to the U.S. on this program who has a U.S. family and all these sorts of things that have maintained a strong tie, and showcase that there is goodwill on the Chinese government’s part to improve the U.S.-China relationship. And we will be the ambassador of the message.

I just feel that so far, very few people other than human rights defenders have spoken out about this, specifically mentioning my brother as an example. How I wish China would return to being the country that once celebrated my brother as a pioneering tech entrepreneur. The last thing I would say is to put pressure on the U.S. government, too. I mean, how could you do this? There was a guy who works in government who came on one of your podcasts, and I asked him. He felt that they were doing everything they can and I hope he’s right.

But ultimately the decision has to be made by the Chinese government, you know that.

Yeah, I do. But they hate releasing people they’ve imprisoned.

I think what China is doing to the Uyghur community right now is going against its own interests. As a human rights lawyer, I don’t like talking about the state’s interest, but China is definitely going against its own interests.

The voices are only going to get louder. This issue is not going away. It’s never going to go away. We are more determined than ever. The Chinese government is still somehow under the illusion that if you keep torturing people’s family members then one day they’ll just give up.

It’s exhausting, but people’s love for their family members is unconditional. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, people will continue to fight. And during that process, the Chinese government’s reputation will be forever tarnished. I mean, it already has, but if this continues, it can never enter a new era of transitional justice or transitional democracy to reconcile its past. I hope that some of the reformers within Chinese society can ensure that the leadership understands this.