Rayhan Asat was full of excitement and energy, on the cusp of graduating from Harvard Law School, when her brother Ekpar suddenly vanished.
This was 2016, and he was in Xinjiang, a territory in northwestern China, where the brother and sister — both members of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethic minority — had grown up.
When she learned that he’d been forcibly disappeared — like more than a million Uyghurs who have since been forced into Xinjiang’s internment camps over the past five years— Asat wanted to use her legal training to publicly advocate for him and the rest of the Uyghurs. She was a human rights lawyer. Who could be better for the job?
But her profession also hindered her in a way; she’d been taught to strategically weigh all possible outcomes, to run careful cost-benefit analyses.
“My legal training was screaming in my mind, ‘Rayhan, what about the risks?’” she told me. “I thought: What if my advocacy goes wrong? What if retaliation happens? What if they go after my parents [in China]?”
At Harvard, she’d learned about a classic thought experiment in moral philosophy called the trolley problem: Should you make the active choice to divert a runaway trolley so that it kills one person if, by doing so, you can save more people along a different track from getting killed? Or should you do nothing and, through inaction, passively allow more people to die?
Now Asat was living a real-life trolley problem, and it was hell. If she advocated for her brother through private channels, China experts told her, there was a small chance she could get him released. If she went public and tried to end Xinjiang’s camp system, she could potentially help many thousands of other Uyghurs — but her brother might pay the direct price for her activism.
At first, she went the private route, as the experts advised her to do. But by 2020, the tide had turned. Other Uyghurs had come forward. The camps were known to the world. And besides, private advocacy hadn’t worked to free her brother. She went public that year, and she’s been a prolific writer, speaker, and activist ever since.
“There was a time when I was blaming myself for not being brave enough [by speaking out earlier]. It took me so long to forgive myself and realize, it’s not about me not being brave, but rather thinking, ‘If I speak up, would that hurt him?’” I was just being thoughtful and strategic. Finally, I was able to forgive myself.”
It’s hard to believe Asat could ever have thought herself not brave; she is the picture of courage. Over the past two years, she has testified before the US Congress, the Canadian House of Commons, the UK House of Commons, the European Parliament, and more.
Seeing the law as a concrete tool to incentivize companies to do good, she’s developed guidelines for how Customs and Border Protection can implement the US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which puts the onus on importers to demonstrate that a product’s supply chain is free of forced labor. And she’s advised countries that are contemplating adopting their own forced labor legislation, from Sweden to the Netherlands to New Zealand.
Not every Uyghur has the legal chops or the safety to be able to speak up as Asat has. But her resilience is common to so many Uyghurs who, in the face of unimaginable suffering, fight to preserve both their unique culture and a vision of a world that protects all people.
Asat herself is more of a bridge-builder than a burn-it-all-down revolutionary. For a decade, she has tried to connect Uyghurs and the dominant Han Chinese, whether by organizing conferences or tweeting about problems afflicting non-Uyghur populations in China. Hatred, she said, has no place in her worldview.
Her inspiration? Her brother Ekpar. In early 2021, the Chinese government permitted him a rarity: a supervised video call with his family. Although he looked like a shadow of his former self — he had been moved into solitary confinement in a prison — he urged them to continue to be kind and to take care of their community.
When Asat realized just how much he cared for the Uyghur people, she felt assured of her choice to take her family’s story public. She hadn’t pushed her brother onto the metaphorical trolley tracks. In fact, she had found a beautiful resolution to philosophy’s famous trolley problem. By choosing to represent his values, she had chosen both him and the Uyghur people he loves so much.