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Delayed sanctions for China’s Uighur atrocities

After three years of mixed signals, the U.S. government finally moves to hold China responsible for its human rights abuses against Uighurs

Delayed sanctions for China’s Uighur atrocities

In this Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, file photo, people wearing masks stand during a rally in Hong Kong to show support for Uighurs. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Since 2017, the Chinese government has been enacting a cultural genocide of the Uighur people and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. Officials have thrown between 1 and 3 million Uighurs into re-education camps, created a high-tech surveillance state, used Uighurs for forced labor in factories around the country, and razed mosques and Uighur cemeteries. 

Evidence of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang has increased through satellite photos, government tenders, the testimony of released detainees, and leaks of confidential documents. Yet the international community has done little in the past three years except publish strongly worded statements.

That changed on June 17 as President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, the first bill in the world to call for an investigation of China’s actions and sanction officials responsible for the human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang.

While Uighur rights activists cheered the move, the signing came the same day The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir. It described Trump telling Chinese President Xi Jinping in June 2019 that “Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” On Monday, Trump said in an interview with Axios he held off imposing sanctions on Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act because he feared it would interfere with trade deals with Beijing. He has also denied Bolton’s claim that he told Xi China should build the camps.

The episode encapsulates the mixed signals the Trump administration has sent regarding its support of Uighurs and pushing against China’s actions in Xinjiang. The U.S. government’s delayed action on the bill, which Sen. Marco Rubio introduced in January 2019, has diluted some of its power. Still, the United States’ actions far surpass those of European countries, which have not proposed sanctions as they work to secure an investment treaty with China. Muslim-majority countries have been either silent or even supportive of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to maintain relations and rake in investments.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act allows the U.S. government to freeze assets of those responsible for oppressing Uighurs and bans them from entering the United States. It also requires reports to Congress about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China’s use of surveillance technology in the region, and China’s detention and forced labor policies against Uighurs. It creates greater protection for the Uighur diaspora in the United States, expands the capacity of Uighur language service for Radio Free Asia (which has been vital in exposing the crisis), and calls for the government to link its China policy with the situation in Xinjiang.

The World Uyghur Congress thanked the U.S. government for passing the first concrete action to stop the crisis. The organization also tweeted it was “deeply concerned by the recent allegations by ex National Security Advisor John Bolton” and called on Trump to address the allegations.

Rushan Abbas, the executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, has long pushed for the bill and said its passage led the worldwide Uighur diaspora to rejoice. She hopes other countries enforce the act and is pushing for other legislation, like the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Co-sponsored by Rubio and Democratic Rep. James McGovern, co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, the legislation would prevent goods that forced laborers in Xinjiang make from reaching the U.S.

Abbas said Trump signing the bill last week overshadows Bolton’s allegations. She sees a silver lining: The controversy has brought more public light to the camps. “No one is asking the greater question, which is that with the confirmation of these concentration camps, shouldn’t all the attention be on Xi Jinping and why he is building concentration camps?” she asked. “The responsibility for this action falls on the Chinese government.”

Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on the Xinjiang camps, told The Nation some of the law’s provisions come too late: Having intelligence agencies report on camp construction and surveillance technology would have been useful two years ago, but now officials have relocated many detainees to factories around China for forced labor. Instead, journalists and researchers worked hard to piece together China’s actions in Xinjiang. 

“This bill really should have passed a year ago,” Zenz told The Nation. “We don’t need to talk about camp construction and the surveillance state anymore. That’s history. It’s a done deal. We have an ongoing dynamic now.”

Starting in 2018, a group of bipartisan lawmakers pushed the Trump administration to place sanctions on Chinese officials over the camps, but the government was too focused on reaching a trade deal with China to take action. Trump has long publicly expressed his admiration for authoritarian leaders, including Xi, while staying silent on China’s abysmal human rights record. 

Weeks after the meeting where Bolton says Trump gave Xi his approval of the camps, Trump met with victims of religious persecution at the White House during a conference on international religious freedom. One guest was Jewhar Ilham, daughter of famous Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence in China for criticizing the CCP’s policies toward Uighurs. After telling the president about the conditions facing Uighurs, Trump responded, “That’s tough stuff.” He appeared not to know about the camps, asking Ilham where they were located. 

Yet other members of the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, have been outspoken about Xinjiang. At the same conference, Pompeo called China’s actions against Uighurs the “stain of the century,” and “one of the worst human rights crises of our time.” In November 2019, he noted the government was still “deeply troubled” by reports the Chinese government has “harassed, imprisoned, or arbitrarily detained family members of Uighur Muslim activists and survivors of Xinjiang internment camps who have made their stories public.”

During last week’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Pompeo listed Xi’s recent aggressions, including ending freedoms in Hong Kong, escalating border tensions with India, militarizing the South China Sea, and green-lighting “a brutal repression against Chinese Muslims, a human rights violation on a scale we have not seen since World War II.” He blamed China for trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.

In response, Chinese state media called Pompeo the “enemy of humanity” who is guilty of “spreading a political virus,” while carefully avoiding naming Trump.

Cross-strait relations: So far in June, Chinese planes have entered Taiwan’s air space eight times in a move to intimidate the democratic island. Voters there recently signaled anti-China sentiment by recalling Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, former presidential candidate for the Beijing-friendly KMT political party.