Trapped in the System: Experiences of Uyghur Detention in Xinjiang

Day 225 - Illustration by Yette Su

More than a million -- some say 3 million -- Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since 2016. China has justified its crackdown by claiming it is part of a counter-terrorism campaign aimed at rooting out “extremism.” However, human rights groups and international observers refer to these detention centers as concentration camps with plenty of evidence of systemic torture and human rights violations. While outlets like Radio Free Asia (RFA) have played a pivotal role in exposing Beijing’s sweeping detentions and the creation of a high-tech surveillance state in the Uyghur homeland, documenting the process by which Chinese authorities target, interrogate, and detain Uyghurs and other minorities has been murky. Recently, RFA’s research department carried out a series of in-depth interviews with survivors from these camps who were caught in the gears of China’s criminal system. These rich firsthand accounts from the inside provide not just a detailed scene of the brutal en masse interrogations, incarcerations, classifications, and means of torture, but heartwrenchingly vivid pictures of the human beings caught in its gears.

Please join George Washington University on Tuesday, February 2, 2021 at 10 am US ET as Dr. Sean Roberts, Associate Professor of International Affairs and Director of the International Development Studies Program at GW's Elliott School of International Affairs, in collaboration with the Central Asian Program (CAP), hosts a discussion with Radio Free Asia about its forthcoming report. Speakers will include Betsy Henderson, Chief Strategy Officer and head of RFA’s audience research program; Alim Seytoff, Director of RFA's Uyghur Service; and Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang, China Senior Researcher.

About the Speakers

Sean Roberts is an anthropologist with regional expertise in Central Asia, where he also has also done extensive applied development work on issues related to civil society, governance, and human rights. Much of his academic work has focused on the Uyghur people in the People’s Republic of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as well as in Central Asia and Turkey. His first book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (Princeton University Press, September 2020) draws on his field research and in-depth interviews with Uyghurs. Roberts also writes on issues related to politics and development in the broader Central Asian region. He frequently comments for media outlets on current events both in Central Asia and in the Uyghur region of China. Roberts earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. @RobertsReport

Betsy Henderson is Radio Free Asia’s Chief Strategy Officer. Henderson was RFA's founding Director of Audience Research, establishing RFA’s capacity to monitor its impact and gather audience feedback in Asia’s most repressive societies. In addition to conducting representative surveys and qualitative studies, Ms. Henderson developed unprecedented research programs for North Korea and China’s Tibetan and Uyghur regions. Since 2003, Henderson has overseen RFA’s journalism training and program evaluation, and now also is responsible for digital analytics, internal goal setting, impact reporting, and performance tracking. A former Associated Press reporter, Ms. Henderson lived and worked in southern China and in Taiwan and speaks Mandarin fluently. Her graduate studies at Columbia and University of Michigan focused on journalism, Chinese politics, and research methodology.

Alim Seytoff is the Director of Radio Free Asia's Uyghur Service. During his tenure, which began in early 2017, RFA Uyghur broke the story of the mass arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region -- and has remained on the forefront of covering this human rights crisis since. Prior to RFA, Alim served as the Executive Director for the Uyghur Human Rights Project and was President of the Uyghur American Association. He has appeared on BBC, CNN and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, speaking about Uyghur related issues. He has testified before the U.S. Congress and has briefed U.S officials on the subject. Alim holds a BA in Chinese Studies from Xinjiang University and a BA in Broadcast Journalism from Southern Adventist University. He has a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. Alim received his Juris Doctor degree from Regent University School of Law in 2006.

Maya Wang is the senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. Wang has researched and written extensively on the use of torture, arbitrary detention, human rights defenders, civil society, disability rights, and women’s rights in China. She is also an expert on human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In recent years, her original research on China’s use of technology for mass surveillance, including the use of biometrics, artificial intelligence and big data, has helped galvanize international attention on these developments in China and globally.

Wang has published on major international media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, ChinaFile, the Diplomat, the Guardian, and has been frequently quoted by international media including the New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and the Associated Press.

Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Wang worked for a non-governmental organization focused on human rights defenders in China. Wang is also a member of Digital Freedom Forum organized by the US-based think tank, Center for a New American Security, and recognized as one of 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics™ by strategic research advisory firm Lighthouse3.