To punish Gulchehra Hoja, a Washington-based journalist for Radio Free Asia, and to stifle her reporting, China’s rulers have imprisoned her brother, harassed her parents and threatened many other relatives back home in Xinjiang, China.
The punishment is keen. But no stifling has taken place.
“Every time they threaten us, we are more proud of you,” Hoja’s mother, who is 72, told her daughter during one of their infrequent phone calls. “Keep doing your work.”
And so she has.
Perhaps the greatest crime against humanity of our young century is unfolding in northwestern China. If it were not for Hoja and her 11 colleagues, we might not know it was taking place.
Yes, you read that right: A dozen reporters and editors working for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, reporting on events taking place halfway around the world, have confounded the massive propaganda machine of the Communist Party of China.
They uncovered the massive but secret incarceration of innocent Uighur men, women and children in a gulag of concentration camps — camps that China at first said did not exist and then insisted were benign vocational training centers.
The RFA reporters disclosed terrible living conditions in orphanages where suddenly parentless children have been sent. They chronicled roundups of eminent poets, clerics and intellectuals. They have begun to report — always carefully, always with two sources or more, never sensationally — on mass deaths in the camps.
Their reports, greeted with some skepticism when they first appeared in 2017, over time have been confirmed by satellite photography, foreign academics, other journalists and, most recently, an extraordinary leak of documents from the Communist Party itself. It is now accepted that more than 1 million and perhaps as many as 3 million Uighurs have been confined, and that thousands of mosques and other sacred spaces have been destroyed.
At every step, Chinese officials have sought to stymie the RFA reporting.
When the journalists began reporting on the mass detentions, the Communist Party began threatening and then rounding up their relatives. A half-dozen RFA journalists, Uighurs living in unsought exile, have spoken publicly about family members back home — often dozens of them — being taken away, with explicit references to the journalists’ work.
When hostage-taking did not deter the journalists, China began screening and blocking calls from the United States to Xinjiang, where the crimes are taking place. And when reporters found a way around that, China began employing artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Now, says reporter Shohret Hoshur, he can still call police desk sergeants and other potential sources — but his calls cut off after one minute.
No matter. It was Hoshur’s Oct. 29 story that confirmed the deaths of 150 people over the course of six months at the No. 1 Internment Camp in the Yengisher district of Kuchar county, “marking the first confirmation of mass deaths since the camps were introduced in 2017,” as the story notes.
It was Hoja’s Oct. 30 story that disclosed a camp survivor’s account of forced sterilizations, sexual abuse and other torture in the camps.
It was RFA reporters who disclosed intrusive surveillance, cameras installed even in homes, Uighur women forced to accept male Han Chinese “guests” in their homes and even in their beds, and efforts to make Uighurs eat pork and drink alcohol, in violation of their faith.
All of this, we now know from documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is in service to a campaign instigated by President Xi Jinping. The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim, ethnic Turkic people who have lived in Central Asia — in what is now the Xinjiang region of China — for more than 1,000 years. On the pretext of suppressing Islamist extremism, China is trying to eradicate their culture and religion — their identity as a people.
This confirmation notwithstanding, it’s certain that what’s happening is far worse than we yet know, as China blocks communication in both directions. Almost no one in the region dares talk to outsiders. Radio Free Asia, U.S.-funded but independently run, continues to broadcast in the Uighur language, but shortwave radios are no longer permitted to be sold in the region, and China has blocked satellite transmission of RFA news.
So the RFA reporters continue their reporting, one one-minute call at a time, one call after another, day after painful day. Sadly, having dozens of relatives locked away no longer makes them all that unusual among Uighurs, notes Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications.
But even if it did, said Mamatjan Juma, deputy director of the Uyghur Service, they would persist.
“It’s an existential choice for us,” he told me. “The Uighurs have no other voice.”