The Uighurs: We need another hero

The Uighurs: We need another hero
© Getty Images

Disney’s recently released “Mulan” offered gratitude during the film’s closing credits to a Chinese government agency responsible for facilitating the creation of internment camps. This attack on Uighurs is difficult to fathom. Disney’s demonstration of appreciation is a public display of complicity and contradictory to the ideals of those in the music, business and entertainment industries. Despite my disappointment, I am in search of a beacon of hope to help me spread the message about the Uighur genocide in Xinjiang.

I’m searching for my own Richard Gere. My “Gere” doesn’t need to be a handsome, silver-haired charmer, or even a man, for that matter. What I’m looking for is a celebrity willing to put their professional and financial capital on the line to speak out against the brutal repression of my people. Gere stood up against Chinese repression in Tibet. Who among the high powered and high-profiled will similarly speak out against the ongoing repression by China of the Uighurs in Xinjiang?

Today, before our eyes, an authoritarian state rounds up millions of ethnic minorities and sentences innocent people to years, even life, in internment camps and prisons. This state forcibly removes children from their guardians to place them in orphanages to pressure them to assimilate to an alien language and culture. The authorities sterilize minority women of childbearing age to eliminate future reproduction of these targeted ethnic groups. The luckier ones – those who live outside the internment camps – face the looming likelihood that their lives will be upended at any moment.


Last month, the world was confronted with disturbing video footage of blindfolded, shaved and shackled Uighur men herded onto trains to go to distant labor factories. The image evoked chilling past atrocities. COVID protection masks made from Uighur forced labor have reached the North American shore. Tech companies are enablers by providing the Chinese government with sophisticated surveillance technology used to contain Uighurs in open-air prisons. 

What I describe here is ongoing, systematic state terror perpetrated by the Chinese government against my people, the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

The Chinese crimes against Uighur people have progressed and risen to the level of genocide. This cause is personal to me. I must speak out for the Uighur people to save my own brother, a tech-savvy media founder named Ekpar Asat

The authoritarian Chinese government kidnapped my brother in April 2016 when Ekpar returned home after attending a prestigious international exchange program sponsored by the State Department. Many world leaders including former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and current New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden are alumni of this  program. Ekpar may have been thrown into a concentration camp, and more than 80 Harvard educated lawyers have since called for his release — with no result.

Such repression calls to mind atrocities such as in Darfur, the genocide of the Rohingya and the systematized racial oppression of apartheid in South Africa. The Darfur atrocities were curtailed in part due to the advocacy of Mia Farrow and Stephen Spielberg. Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie condemned the Rohingya genocide. Disgust with apartheid united Miles Davis, Bonnie Rait, Bob Dylan and a host of other musicians to record an extraordinary protest album in 1985.

But the mass atrocities against Uighurs have largely met with silence. It is hard to tell whether this is due to a lack of understanding or fear of retribution. 2020 marks four continuous years of devastating persecution of millions of Uighur men, women and children.

Those who value freedom in the world should not ignore what is happening as our families are torn apart and innocent people are persecuted. The walls of internment camps may not look like the Berlin Wall, but with barbed wire and sophisticated Chinese surveillance, families are separated from their loved ones without reason, without hope.  

As an attorney and problem solver, it hurts me that I cannot help my brother more. That’s because, unlike in Western democracies, where lawyers are truly advocates, an attorney’s influence together with the rule of law are extinguished when the fight takes place in a totalitarian country. 

The coalition of celebrities vowing, “Not on our Watch” garnered global attention to ongoing genocide in Darfur. In 2008, Steven Spielberg resigned his adviser position to the Beijing Olympics to protest the failure of China to distance itself from the genocide in Darfur. Now, Beijing is set to host the 2020 Olympics again, while at the same time it has trapped millions of its own people, the Uighurs, behind walls and in prisons.

Unequivocal support from celebrities could help end the repression that the Uighurs face every day in Xinjiang. Recently, John Oliver dedicated an episode of his weekly HBO show to detail the  Uighur human rights crisis, reaching  millions of viewers. This shows how important celebrity support can be to catalyze a public outcry and educate millions to end this tragedy. 

The fabulous Tina Turner loudly proclaimed, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” But I must disagree. The Uighurs desperately need a hero, hopefully many heroes, willing to stand up and speak out on their behalf. So, I search for celebrities and others of influence to join in the rescue not only of my brother, Ekpar, but of millions of other mistreated, detained and imprisoned Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.

Rayhan Asat is a lawyer at a Wall Street law firm and serves as president of the American Turkic Lawyers Association (ATILA). She is also a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights and chair of the Women Entrepreneurs Committee at Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs D.C. Chapter. Follow her on Twitter @RayhanAsat.