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.
Beijing devotes immense resources to restricting access for and stanching scrutiny from international groups and reporters. It’s a feat for any journalist to break through the obstacles—all the more so for the Uighur Service’s staff, who themselves grew up in Xinjiang and for whom the work exacts a heavy emotional toll. Many have had family members in China detained as a direct result of their reporting. And every day, it seems, another prominent Uighur goes missing, another symbol of Uighur life is erased, and the situation grows bleaker. At a time when the Chinese government appears bent on stamping out Uighur culture and religion, though, members of the Uighur Service say they have no choice but to press forward.
“This is not just my job; it is a duty to my people,” Hoshur told me. His 78-year-old mother in Xinjiang was detained and his two brothers are currently in camps, along with their wives and sons. “The urgency of this situation needs to be known by the world.”
From the day RFA began broadcasting in 1996, funded by grants from the U.S. government, Beijing has viewed the outlet as an implicit threat. Xinjiang, blanketed with police checkpoints and high-tech surveillance equipment, can be a difficult place for reporters to cover. But for RFA’s journalists, who are barred from entry to mainland China, matters are all the more complicated.
These days, Uighur Service reporters usually each place hundreds of calls a day to Xinjiang, including at night to account for the time difference with China. Few calls connect, however, and with many Uighurs missing—or rightly fearful of the consequences of speaking with journalists—willing sources are becoming more difficult to come by. In recent months, RFA has come to suspect China of employing voice-recognition technology against its reporters, as calls reliably cut off within the first minute. Even when journalists employ tools that alter their voice, windows to speak are fleeting. “If I can confirm one or two facts, I am lucky,” says Eset Sulaiman, a former professor of Uighur literature at Xinjiang University who joined RFA in 2013. “Then I start again.”
What RFA reporters lack by way of access, they make up for with extensive knowledge of the region. Armed with a local’s understanding of Xinjiang’s culture and bureaucratic minutiae, they often know precisely which entities to call to verify the latest scoops. Between them, they also boast a wide-ranging linguistic repertoire—Uighur, Mandarin, English, Russian, Turkish, Kazakh, and a smattering of European languages—which enables them to engage with both Chinese authorities and members of the Uighur diaspora, spread across parts of Central Asia, Europe, and North America.
Reports are recorded in Uighur and broadcast over shortwave and medium-wave radio, satellite, and the internet. Written versions of stories appear online as well, with the most important pieces translated into English and sometimes other RFA-supported languages. For Uighurs living in Xinjiang, jamming of radio frequencies and internet censorship limit access to the reports, but according to a spokesperson for the World Uighur Congress, an international Uighur advocacy group, RFA’s coverage is a vital resource for Uighurs outside of China who are cut off from loved ones back home.
The work can be exhausting. In a cubicle-filled office shared with other RFA language services, long days are a mad scramble of interviewing, transcribing, writing, recording, and editing. Adding to the heartbreak of their own family members being detained, reporters frequently find that the subjects of their stories are former mentors, colleagues, teachers, and friends. When the work feels like its too much to bear, Gulchehra Hoja, who has as many as two dozen family members presently detained, says she finds strength in knowing that her colleagues understand her struggle. “The Chinese government wants us to be silent, so we must use our voices,” she told me. “We are all suffering, but I believe the truth matters.”
In a former life, Hoja, who joined RFA in 2001, served as the host of a children’s TV program in Xinjiang. In recent months, she has found herself especially concerned with the fate of Uighur children whose parents have been detained. In January, Hoja learned of a video making the rounds on social media showing children in one of the many government-run orphanages where they are placed when their parents are taken. A source in Turkey connected her with a mother in exile who had identified a young girl in the video as her own. “I recognized her straight away,” the woman told Hoja in a tearful interview. “I was happy and overjoyed knowing that at least one of my children is alive.” (Some stories of the children left behind are more horrific. Also in January, Hoshur reported on an unattended toddler who fell through the ice of an irrigation ditch in Xinjiang and drowned.)
RFA’s work routinely helps illuminate key issues in Xinjiang, according to foreign correspondents for whom reporting in the province can be a fraught and resource-intensive undertaking. “What RFA has been able to uncover has been remarkable,” says Megha Rajagopalan, who reported extensively from Xinjiang for BuzzFeed News until China refused to renew her visa last August. Chris Buckley, who covers China for The New York Times, described the Uighur Service’s reporting to me as “extremely courageous” and said it has been critical to keeping the Xinjiang story alive in the international press.
At present, however, it is not clear if any amount of reporting will be enough to force change in Xinjiang, up against the combined heft of China’s political and economic influence on the world stage. Foreign leaders have condemned the internments, and a growing group of lawmakers in Washington is pushing Donald Trump’s administration to take punitive action against Beijing. But amid ongoing trade disputes and other high-profile issues in which China is a key player, such as negotiations with North Korea, the plight of the Uighurs has tended toward the wayside.
Last fall, following strident denials of the detention camps’ existence, Beijing wrote them into law. Then in January, it passed legislation giving the government authority “to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism and implement measures to Sinicize the religion.” China is set to welcome United Nations inspectors into Xinjiang, but the visit is widely expected to be an act of theater, rather than a sincere effort toward transparency.
In rare interviews with survivors, RFA has documented overcrowding, malnutrition, torture, and even death inside the camps. But Alim Seytoff, the Uighur Service director, says that his team’s reporting has likely only scratched the surface. “What is happening there is hell on Earth,” Seytoff says. He worries that the whole truth might never be known.