This interview was conducted and transcribed with Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Please join us for Combatting Crimes Against Humanity in China: Fighting to Protect the Human Rights of Uyghurs, a conversation with Sophie Richardson, on Wednesday, October 27 at 7 pm in Sanford 04.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): What first brought you to research human rights in China?

Sophie Richardson (SR): It was a combination of having grown up in a family that was very engaged
on civil rights issues in the US and having gone to a college where social activism was really core to who we all were and having started to study Chinese language and made my first trip to China in the months almost immediately after the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre and starting to think about political rights and participation and who got to participate where in different parts of the world and why?

 A lot of that ultimately combined into an interest in, you know, understanding why the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government have denied people certain key rights over the years. I’m very fortunate to have had lots of different kinds of experiences that brought me to that interest.

GM: What is the biggest challenge you have come across while researching China’s politics? 

SR: I think the biggest challenge I’ve come across in researching politics in China is a reasonable sense of how much information one can’t get at. You know, I wrote an entire doctoral dissertation and turned it into a book, and on some level, I still can’t help but wonder if there is a trunk full of documents someplace, you know, that would demonstrate that what I think or thought I knew was not correct. You know, you don’t have open access to individuals, to government sources, even to kinds of private information. And you know, it’s I think, important to underscore that many researchers inside China also don’t have access to that kind of information.

You know, it’s not as if there’s a Freedom of Information Act or a free press or, you know, people who are in or retired from senior government positions can necessarily speak freely. So, I think it’s that that sense of trepidation that you can never quite shake, that you don’t have all of the facts, that you can’t get at them. That, I think for researchers is a really frustrating reality. 

GM: In your book China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, you wrote that China’s guiding principles of foreign policy are respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty; nonaggression; noninterference; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. How do these principles relate to China’s domestic actions against the Uyghurs and how are these actions impacting their foreign relations? 

SR: I think at a particular time what those principles meant or not, they don’t necessarily translate in a way that you and I would necessarily understand. For example, the concept of noninterference, I think, to Chinese foreign policy makers in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, it meant relieving serious pressures on other countries that were brought by other countries. And more often than not, that meant either the United States or the Soviet Union.

And so, you know, the Chinese government’s game at that time was to try to relieve those pressures and create other options. And I think that’s changed a lot in the last 20 years. I think the drivers of foreign policy in Beijing have changed pretty dramatically.

It’s possible I was completely wrong in my analysis. But I think now, you know, you can certainly see the Chinese government assert that the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, which we’ve labeled as crimes against humanity, is actually a highly successful public policy initiative to prevent terrorism, and to deny the outside world a chance to have a look and assess independently what’s going on. I find it very interesting that we’re now in a time when the Chinese government will back commissions of inquiry looking at serious human rights violations elsewhere, but still not allow and allow them elsewhere when it’s politically convenient for Beijing to do so, but still resist them at home. But as my colleagues will point out, you know, hypocrisy is the norm within many international institutions. But it’ll be interesting to see if the Chinese government gets behind more and more of these kinds of multilateral initiatives, you know that could just as easily be applied to what’s going on inside the country.

 GM: Where do you see the most promise for real change in Xinjiang? 

SR: I’m going to give you two answers to that if you don’t mind, I think the first is in the breathtaking bravery and courage that people from the Uyghur and Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities inside and outside the region have shown, not just in advocating for a reunification with arbitrarily detained family members or an end to the human rights crimes, but efforts to preserve language, culture, tradition, religion outside the country. I think that in and of itself is a very powerful act of self-preservation and resistance.

 But on the more diplomatic and legalistic side of the equation, I think we are slowly starting to see momentum build towards something that could be an actual effort at holding senior Chinese government officials accountable for crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

 And this is what the world typically tries to do in the face of serious human rights crises is even potentially to prosecute individuals who are responsible. And I think this crisis comes at a moment when whether governments are mobilized or motivated by the way the coronavirus pandemic has played out or by the assaults on democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, that the idea that the Chinese government should not be granted impunity, that it shouldn’t be allowed to escape or duck or just wait out the kind of scrutiny and accountability that other governments are subjected to.

I think that moment is here, and I think there are a lot of different factors that play into that. But, you know, five years ago, if I had suggested to somebody, you know, in the US or Australian or Japanese governments that the Xinjiang Party secretary should be investigated and potentially held liable for serious human rights crimes, I would have gotten laughed out of the room. Now that’s a serious discussion. And you know, tragically, that is also, I think, indicative of the seriousness of the situation inside of the country and not just for Uyghurs, but it also, I think, reflects significantly how other governments and multilateral institutions perceive the need for the Chinese government to actually abide by established international human rights law and commitment. 

GM: What is your goal as the China Director at Human Rights Watch in protecting the Uyghurs? 

SR: I think we at Human Rights Watch have two particularly important goals for our work on behalf of Uyghurs. You know, the first is the very human one to find out what’s happened to all of these people who’ve been arbitrarily detained and to try to reunite them with their family members. To end the crisis and, you know, end this era of people being wholly cut off, even if they’re all still inside the region, it’s extraordinary how people have been prevented from communicating with one another. But the second, which I think is a priority not just for Uyghurs or for Human Rights Watch, but I think for lots of people around the world, is to hold the Chinese government officials accountable for serious human rights crimes in the same way that Human Rights Watch supports that goal for any official from any government who is credibly alleged to have committed serious rights crimes. Accountability is essential to deterring further abuses. I think as we look back now over the last decade at the situation across the Uyghur region, we can really see how other governments and systems like the UN’s failures to impose meaningful consequences on the Chinese government emboldened it to become more and more abusive. And I think it’s critical to start challenging that reality before the very institutions that we all rely on for a modicum of justice in the face of human rights abuses are themselves so badly weakened by the Chinese government and some of its allies that there are no institutions through which these issues can really be managed or prosecuted. 

GM: What is your advice for students interested in working on human rights? 

SR: Well, last but not least, my advice for students who are interested in working in human rights: there is no one true path. There are lots of different kinds of human rights work. You know, there is the research approach. There are people who are service providers. There are forensic scientists. There are lawyers and journalists and doctors and judges and anthropologists and tick on down the list. And I think sometimes people get the impression, I know I had the impression when I was still in college and for the first few years afterwards, that there was kind of only one mode of human rights work. But, you know, so the diplomats we work with are tremendous human rights advocates. Some of the people who work in Congress or in parliaments. So just know that there are many different ways and many different approaches, and that it’s a movement that now needs lots of different kinds of skills. And so people shouldn’t feel like they’re locked in to going to law school and then going out and getting some dirt under their fingernails and coming to an organization like Human Rights Watch. There are many ways to make contributions, and we are just one small part of a much larger ecosystem and movement. And maybe I’ll just close by saying I look forward to working with some of you someday. Thanks.