Soon after Radio Free Asia (RFA) broke the news that thousands of Uighurs were being interned in China’s far-western Xinjiang province, Shohret Hoshur, a reporter with RFA’s Uighur Service, set out to determine just how many people authorities intended to detain. On the phone with a Communist Party secretary in one village, he pressed for a number. Forty percent of adults, came the reply. Was this an estimate, or an order from above? Hoshur asked. It was an order, the official responded.
That was in the fall of 2017. At the time, even more than now, Xinjiang’s detention centers were shrouded in mystery. The quota shocked Hoshur for its sweeping scale. It also belied dubious government claims that those being taken into custody were guilty of crimes or associated with extremist activity. Today estimates place the number of Uighurs in detention at more than 1 million, and researchers say China’s actions amount to ethnic cleansing, if they do not mark a prelude to genocide.
The full scope and severity of the situation in Xinjiang are still unknown. But from the day China’s detention campaign began in earnest, RFA’s Uighur Service—the only Uighur-language news outlet in the world that is independent of Chinese government influence—has frequently been at the tip of the spear of coverage. From the RFA offices in Washington, D.C., its team of 12 journalists has broken hundreds of stories, sometimes bearing sole witness to China’s alarming and escalating crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in the country.