Rayhan Asat is a 2021-2022 Yale World Fellow whose brother is being held in solitary confinement as part of China’s genocide against the Uyghur minority. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Rayhan is an international human rights lawyer and advocate fighting for the release of her brother and freedom for all Uyghur people.
The Politic: Can you please tell us about what life was like leading up to the time before Ekpar was “disappeared” and imprisoned in Xinjiang forced labor camps in 2016?
Asat: I was a student at Harvard. Of all my family, I remember my brother was incredibly proud, because I was the first Uyghur to study law there. One of my cherished memories is from the summer I got accepted: I went back to Ürümqi, and my family came with all these bouquets. My brother arranged everything. That’s how thoughtful he is.
Then, in late 2015, my brother told me that he’d been selected to one of the most prestigious programs in the United States, the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
He has a social technology [business] because he studied computer science in university but also is a voracious reader. He created this platform for people to share knowledge and learn from each other, but also befriend each other. He saw an opportunity for Uyghurs to also catch up with the rest of the world. He believed that in order to really help people and also at the same time create a platform for the government to engage with citizens, it was important to follow the censorship rules. The government really liked it, so they partnered with him and collaborated with him on a project to help some of the kids that he’d been working with.
I thought that when somebody really commits themselves to a cause, one that is so noble, then I think people do recognize you for your commitment, for your kindness, and generosity. And I think those are the values of my brother.
In his program cohort were kind people who are representative of the country but also come from different provinces and cities of China. Han people within the cohort were not exposed to Uyghur culture — they didn’t know Uyghur people at all. So they were planning to work on a video of their trip, and then share it with the rest of the Chinese citizens to showcase this beautiful relationship between our member of the community with the majority,
When he was in Washington, DC, I met up with him. That was supposed to be it, but I really wanted to meet him again, so I ended up going to New York for a few hours and met with him. Then I had to come back to Boston, because I had a negotiation workshop seminar course that I could not miss. It was a busy semester. A part of me said, oh, maybe I should go to San Francisco to visit him. But he’s like, “no, no, no, chill, I’m coming back to your graduation with our parents.” So I started to schedule a road trip for us, looking forward to spending a few months together with my family. That was our big plan.
Meanwhile, he went back to China. And I never thought that would be the last time I’d see him. Within weeks, he disappeared into the shadows of the Chinese government’s internment camps.
At the time, did you know what was happening?
The Uyghur media outlets in America were reporting [on] people disappearing, but they thought they were in some sort of factories or camps. But because I wasn’t engaged in this kind of politics, I wasn’t so sure what was happening. And suddenly, my parents, who were so eager to come to the United States, canceled their trip to the US. They couldn’t tell me why.
One morning I woke up and I had this gut feeling. I had butterflies all over my stomach and immediately tried to contact my brother. He was nowhere to be found. I reached out to my parents [to ask if] something happened to my brother. There was just a lot of weeping on the other end of the phone.
The first initial months I was trying to piece things together but still had so much hope in the integrity of the Chinese system. When people go abroad, sometimes these kinds of things happen in China. Very often people would disappear and the government would investigate them but [eventually] release them. I just thought this was one of those.
Were you worried that something was going to happen to your parents as well?
I think that was the ultimate fear. And that was one thing that kept me from speaking up. It was about “whose life should I be protecting?” My parents, or his? If I speak up, what happens if they detain my parents? What if they [are held] in the same conditions? Nobody should be put in position to choose one life over the other. And that’s what I had to do. I chose my parents over him by not speaking out publicly.
How did you decide to start speaking up?
When I talked to some of the Harvard professors about the idea, they [highlighted that] the Chinese government cares a lot about their reputation. That means that you don’t do public advocacy, because the minute you say the Chinese government arbitrarily detained or disappeared somebody, that would hurt their global image. They would see you as the enemy of the state.
That’s why I chose to reach out to some of my friends in China, professors I know, from before, or contacts that I have within the business community or even within the government. But all of them said that they could have become involved if we were Han, but because we’re Uyghurs, they cannot get involved because our identity is sensitive.
It was never my intention to become an advocate who would speak against the Chinese. I was proud of a diverse China. I was proud of being a bridge-builder between the Han people, the Uyghur people, and the government itself.
I tried to work within the system. I tried to do everything to see my brother without jeopardizing his life or mine. The final breaking point was learning about the sentencing. He was sentenced to a prison camp on trumped-up charges of inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination. He’s the one who’s systematically discriminated against—and yet they’re blaming him. They don’t have to bring any evidence or anything to justify it. No court record, no trial record, nothing.
He’s been in solitary confinement since January 2019. The prison officials confirmed with my family that he looked like a shadow of his former self.
What are some of your main advocacy and activism efforts?
The first time I ever spoke publicly was in 2020 at Harvard. I truly centered my advocacy around speaking to college students who can understand my pain, being a student and having this bright future and suddenly, just a nightmare ensuing after your graduation.
The other dimension of my advocacy is raising awareness with members of Congress to address this crisis. I’ve been privileged to be given a platform. I try to use it as powerfully as I can to explain the unexplainable to American and international audiences.
I have been very selective to be a moderate voice that can invite the Chinese government to reconsider its repressive policies, but also bring the Chinese people to my cause.
Do you still have hope that he will be released?
Am I hopeful? I am. As now Biden and Xi are set to meet, Biden should discuss directly with Xi to bring Ekpar to America.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity, due to space constraints, and to reflect follow-up questions with Rayhan Asat. Cameron Freeman and Katherine Chou contributed to editing.