By Ben Sterling
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
To begin with, could you give me some background on yourself?
I am a member of the Yale World Fellows program. The program is designed to bring together 16 leaders to create this cohort where we can learn from each other but also give back to the community and to train young leaders while at the same time honing our own leadership skills. I’m giving some lectures at the different schools here at Yale and with different professors. I was a guest lecturer in Professor Beverly Gate’s class, for instance and also gave a human rights workshop seminar at the Shell Center at the law school. So it’s easy to reconnect with students, but also bring about this legal advocacy to the Yale community.
I was hoping you could share a little bit of your story. For instance, about your brother and the events that have led up to that in the last two years.
I was just struck by a recent comment by the new Chinese ambassador to the United States. He said that he emphasized the importance of cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and China. I bring this up because my brother is a very prominent Uyghur tech entrepreneur, somebody who believed in using the power of technology for good causes. He’s a philanthropist; he helped many kids with disabilities, elderly and so forth. So because of all the wonderful work he has done, either in his philanthropic commitment but also as a tech entrepreneur he was nominated to this very prestigious exchange program while he was in China in 2016. But within weeks after returning from this program he disappeared into the shadows of the internment camps because his influence disappeared while the Chinese government was cracking down on the Uyghurs and criminalizing the entire Uyghur people as a whole. And despite touting the importance of these cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and China, my brother came to the same program that many hundreds of Han people came through, including the Chinese community here. Some of them are part of these cultural exchange programs, and yet because of his Uyghur identity, my brother was persecuted and sent to the prison camps. But over the first few years I was very much afraid of engaging in advocacy and I have tried every means to secure his freedom. But getting involved in the Xinjiang issue has been deemed very sensitive in the eyes of many Chinese people, including people who have connections with the Chinese government. So a lot of people I turned to kindly refused to help me and ultimately in May 2020, I became this voice. I decided to bring his story to the American public as well as to international audiences, probably. So this really changed my life because from a former Wall Street lawyer now turned to a human rights lawyer, it’s all driven by this unconditional love I have for my brother. And I hope that anyone that has a sibling can understand the pain of not being able to embrace your brother for years.
I really want to drill into your decision process for becoming Ekpar’s voice. Where did you find the courage to begin this campaign, knowing that your actions can influence how he’s treated?
It was the most difficult decision that I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve always thought about this moral dilemma because I thought about what would happen to my parents when I decided to speak out against the Chinese, against their arbitrary detention and forced disappearance of my brother. Would they retaliate against my parents? You’re choosing one life over the other. Ultimately, though, I thought unfortunately that my parents have lived their lives and I chose my brother. He’s too young for me to give up on, but [I was] also betting that because of the public pressure maybe the Chinese government wouldn’t go after my parents. The other [thing] was I tried to put myself in his shoes, in a dark cell all by himself, and how [I imagined] how I would feel. Would I want him to be as outspoken as he can, or would I want to feel like I’m forgotten by the world? And after I tried every other means and none of them worked, I realized that I must seek ownership of him. I must become his voice.
Since then, you’ve begun your campaign. Could you speak to some of the successes you’ve experienced, places where your advocacy has borne fruit?
The Uyghur crisis, given the sheer number of the people in the camps, has created this sense of feeling so powerless. How do you explain the unexplainable? There are millions of people there. How do you conceive of that? And I think that I personalize this, I provide a very personal story between two siblings who love each other. They danced together and studied together. I think my story is an American story. I think that is what I was able to bring to the American public, unlike other Uyghur actors. Because I was able to paint this picture; this could happen to your next door neighbor. And this is why people across different backgrounds, American people, were holding up [my brother’s] picture and demanded the Chinese government to free Ekpar, using the “Free Ekpar” slogan. So although I haven’t had the big win, those small wins allow some light to come through. And the friendships that I’ve formed. Whenever I do media interviews, I receive heartfelt messages from the public. And sometimes these people are even Trump supporters, people that I would think of as anti-immigrant. They tell me, “what you’re doing for your brother is amazing and we’re praying for your family.” Those moments are very impactful. I was able to deliver that message to Secretary Blinken, that it’s not just me that I want my brother to be free, but also the American people want him and pray for him. To be prayed for was really important then and on top of that, being able to bring my brother’s story to institutions, the finest institutions in the world like Harvard and Yale by virtue of my affiliation. At Harvard, the community stood by me in solidarity and demanded the Chinese government to free Ekpar, and now the Yale community is joining my cause as well. And I noticed that whenever I deliver lectures, people are crying and the students are very emotional. Now it’s not a story that all this happened to Rayhan. This injustice is happening to a member of our community. I think for me, it’s all my journey to build this broader coalition, to be able to create this relatedness that this could be you and it’s happening to me. I’m here asking you to join and support me. I’m happy to have the Yale community respond to my pain and the fight to free my brother.
Given the upcoming Biden-Xi summit, could you speak more broadly about what you think of the United States’ current policy towards the genocide, and what actions would you hope to see from the Biden administration or the U.S. at large in the upcoming days?
I would love the summit to have a lot of issues discussed about areas where the U.S. and China can work together, like climate change or tackling the global pandemic response. But that doesn’t mean that the Uyghur issue should take a back seat; it has to be at the forefront of the discussion. And it’s incredibly important for people to understand that we cannot achieve a better climate without addressing issues concerning the forced labor and exploitation of entire peoples. Because while the Chinese government is portraying this message that they value cultural exchange programs, they’re also detaining my brother; that’s not the kind of universal world that I can imagine the Chinese government desires to achieve.
I think the Biden administration will be able to use my case as an example to call out the Chinese government, that it hasn’t convinced the U.S. that it’s going to be a good partner when it detains my brother who came out to this program. Now for the U.S. to see that China is going to be a good partner on issues concerning climate change and the global pandemic, we also need to see some goodwill gestures from the Chinese government that it is going to be a good-faith partner. These are the sort of actions that the Chinese government can do to be that partner, to do the right thing. It can show the Biden administration and also the American public that it values these exchange programs, that they believe in the power of education and that they desire to empower people. All these things shouldn’t be hollow words. I don’t want to see that.
And in addition, I think that both governments should be committed to addressing global issues without a confrontational approach. If they’re going to explore ways on how the U.S. and China can work together, both countries need to be committed to human rights norms and principles. And obviously the Chinese government, to begin with, should close the camps. And those are the sorts of things that the Biden administration can easily propose because what we’re asking is not much. It is very basic stuff, almost too basic. We’re just asking for our people to be able to live with dignity.
Recently AP reported about how the Chinese authorities have scaled back the most draconian elements of the repression in Xinjiang and this has become a frequently-talked-about subject on Twitter. What do you say to these reports? Do you believe they’re true? And if they’re true, what do you think comes next?
We need to be careful with what this report says, and I don’t think it, in any way, said that the Chinese government is scaling back. I think it says that there’s now an appearance of normalcy–let’s put it that way. But the government is building more permanent camps. And the fact that some of the more visible surveillance cameras have been turned off doesn’t mean that there haven’t been more enhanced surveillance mechanisms already put in place. I don’t think the Chinese government would make these adjustments easily. Maybe it is in response to the international criticism, but we need to be mindful that perhaps there have been other measures already put in place. The Chinese government built these permanent structures–permanent prisons–and is giving people incredibly lengthy sentences to normalize the concentration camps to a prison system. This is a strong indicator. And that’s why I feel like this article in no way suggests that the government is scaling back, but rather that perhaps there’s a new form of pemancy and normalcy that the Chinese government seeks to present, which is through the prison system. And that’s the notion that we must have, that it’s still concentration camps, still prisons. There’s a real danger in this deception of normalcy. This perception doesn’t mean there’s something happening behind the curtain. The article mainly references Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, but it itself is a bit of a seductive city. But in order to understand the extent of what’s happening, you need to go beyond the capital city and see what’s happening in the dark corners.
Recently you’ve had a lot of high profile talks and visits. You’re able to give a talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum. You’ve had some successes speaking at Harvard and now here in the wake of these successes, how have you noticed people hearing you differently? How have people’s reactions changed since the beginning of your journey?
Before I shared my story, nobody knew anything. For some reason I think the public perception was that individuals like me and my brother are a sort of byproduct of when the Chinese opened their economy to the world. [People think that] real people aren’t impacted, but simply some marginalized community. I think I will successfully reshape that narrative, that this impacts everyone. My brother and I sought to be model citizens in the eyes of the Chinese government and I only narrowly escaped being thrown in a concentration camp. I think that was a very powerful message that in some ways my brother saved me. Because of his ordeal I didn’t go back. Had I gone back there, I would be there. I would be in the camps. Seeing somebody like me who is trying to achieve their own American story like everyone else, and confronting the reality that I could be in the camps in this day and age with all the education that I have… I think it just exposes the brutality and barbaric nature of these camps, the worrying direction that China is currently headed in its global policy. My experience serves as a sort of warning to the world. This is the kind of country we’re creating. And how do we respond to that? I think if people start to see that–and unfortunately we need to remind ourselves that I am part of this community of elite institutions like here–you can have this very bright future and it can be taken away overnight just by the virtue of your race. And that is just too brutal.
The last question I want to ask you about is that for people who’ve been reading this, do you have any advice for them as members of the Yale community if they wish to educate themselves further? What should they be doing now?
It’s an extremely noble cause to fight for human freedom. I am here for a sister’s fight for her brother. And I hope when the Yale community learns of this, especially knowing the history of Yale and universities elsewhere. Once we stood up against apartheid in South Africa, and Apartheid fell as a result. It’s time to do it again. What’s happening in China against the Uyghurs is driven by a very racist policy of the Chinese government, and as a community, our campus has been very concerned with issues about race and identity. It’s important that we actually extend the same values to people who are the victims of racist government policies around the world. And that’s the kind of change that I would love to see at Yale, so that they can join with me and stand in solidarity with me and then march forth. My brother is in solitary confinement. As I walk around this beautiful campus in this historical space, I’m constantly reminded of his solitary confinement, and how he’s just shielded from the rest of the world. He’s not just in the camps. He’s alone. And that’s why every day when I breathe this beautiful air or just meet another wonderful member of the Yale community, I’m constantly thinking of my brother, and just wishing that he too would have these relationships and friendships. I want every single person here to understand the privileges they have to form these wonderful friendships with each other, even during Covid. And my message to the Yale community is to really cherish each other and form long lasting friendships, because I couldn’t. Have wonderful relationships with your siblings and family. Go for long walks with them, because that is the thing that I’m very much yearning for these days.
Ben Sterling is a first-year in Silliman College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.