The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
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.
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On May 31, Zhou Fengsuo, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident and president of Humanitarian China, organized a virtual Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration over Zoom. About 250 people, including participants from mainland China, joined the event. It included talks by Zhou and other student leaders of the 1989 democracy movement, the mothers of those killed in the crackdown, and survivors like Dong Shengkun, a Beijing resident who spent 17 years in prison for attempting to block troops from reaching Tiananmen Square.
A week later, Zhou found Zoom had suspended Humanitarian China’s paid account without notification or explanation.
It was only after Axios reported the account closure last week that Zoom reactivated the account and explained it was complying with China’s laws when it shut the account down: “When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws.”
Zhou called the actions by Zoom, a U.S. company, outrageous. “I’m very angry of course, that even in this country, in the United States ... we have to be prepared for this kind of censorship,” Zhou told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
Zhou was not the only one to have his account disabled: Wang Dan, another Tiananmen student leader, said Zoom interrupted his commemoration event and disabled his account. Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigil, said Zoom suspended his account last month after the group hosted a series of talks that criticized the Chinese government.
On Thursday, Zoom published a blog post revealing the Chinese government had notified the company of four public Tiananmen Square commemoration meetings on Zoom, which the company claimed it needed to terminate since the events are illegal in China. Zoom said it shut down three of the meetings because it had participants from mainland China and suspended the host accounts.
The company admitted it was wrong to shut down the accounts since they were all based outside mainland China (two in the United States and one in Hong Kong). Zoom leaders said they are developing technology to block participants from certain countries so that people outside China would not be affected.
Unlike other video platforms like Google Meet or Facebook Live, the Chinese government doesn’t block Zoom, allowing mainland users to attend events like the Tiananmen commemorations. But in May, Zoom stopped allowing unpaid Chinese users to host meetings (though they can join meetings).
As Zoom has grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, it has also recently faced criticism for China-related security issues. University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found in April the company owns three companies in China where 700 employees work to develop software. That raises concerns that Zoom may face pressure from Chinese authorities.
The report also found Zoom at times distributes encryption keys through servers in China, which raises questions about whether the Chinese government requires Zoom to disclose these keys to authorities. Free calls also do not have end-to-end encryption.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan also announced that the company mistakenly routed calls from some non-Chinese users through China. He claimed that in the urgency to handle increased traffic due to the pandemic, “we failed to fully implement our usual geo-fencing best practices,” which caused some meetings to connect to systems in China.
Because of the security concerns, the government of Taiwan has banned its officials’ use of Zoom. The German Foreign Ministry restricted Zoom use to personal computers, while the U.S. Senate urged its members not to use the platform.
A group of bipartisan U.S. lawmakers sent Yuan a letter last week asking which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials asked Zoom to terminate activists’ accounts, what law the activists were breaking, and what data Zoom shares with Beijing. They also asked if the company’s offices in mainland China have CCP branches or committees.
In a separate letter to Yuan, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Zoom had to choose a side: Either align with the American principle of free speech or cave to China’s authoritarian censorship.
“These oppressive ‘local laws’ are what Party officials use to oppress more than a billion people, including more than 1 million Uighurs who have been forced into slavery,” Hawley wrote. “These ‘local laws’ are what China is using to crack down on protesters in Hong Kong who just want the basic liberties they were promised by international treaty.”
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When Hong Kong’s democracy protesters waved American flags last November to thank the U.S. government for passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, they knew the bill was a double-edged sword: It requires the United States to assess annually whether Hong Kong has enough autonomy to continue receiving preferential trade benefits. This punishes China for encroaching on Hong Kong and breaking its promise to give the territory a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.
But the U.S. stripping Hong Kong of its special economic status will also hurt the businesses and people of Hong Kong. Companies would likely leave the international financial hub, driving up unemployment. Still, democracy activists like Joshua Wong hoped U.S. action would cause Beijing to count the high cost of stripping Hong Kong of its freedoms, such as clamping down on remembrances of the Tiananmen Square massacre or outlawing insults to the Chinese national anthem.
“For decades, Hong Kong has facilitated the influx of global capital and otherwise unavailable goods (e.g. high-tech products) into China,” Wong tweeted last week. “Leaders in Beijing continue the reap the benefits of this arrangement while our freedoms deteriorate. They can’t have it both ways.”
On May 28 the rubber-stamping National People’s Congress approved plans for a national security law in Hong Kong that would criminalize what it considers subversion and secession (for instance, a court sentenced Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church to nine years in prison on charges of subversion of state power). The law would allow Beijing to set up security forces in Hong Kong to clamp down on pro-democracy activists and protesters.
In response, President Donald Trump announced “Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment that we have afforded the territory since the handover.” This means the United States will place the same trade restrictions, law enforcement, and travel requirements on Hong Kong as it currently does with mainland China.
Trump also noted Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for the national security law would face sanctions.
China allowed Hong Kong to retain its autonomy after its handover from Britain in 1997 so it could remain an international financial hub and a conduit between China and the rest of the world. Between 2010 and 2018, 73 percent of initial public offerings for mainland Chinese companies took place in Hong Kong, according to the Financial Times. Removing Hong Kong’s special status would “hurt China many times more than it’s going to hurt Hong Kong,” Kyle Bass, chief investment officer for Hayman Capital Management, told The Washington Post.
But Beijing claims otherwise since cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have developed their own financial infrastructure. “This hegemonic act of attempting to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs will not frighten the Chinese people and is doomed to fail,” an editorial in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily said.
Some in Hong Kong worry the territory is becoming the collateral damage of the China-U.S. feud. “This looks like a new Cold War, and Hong Kong is being made a new Berlin,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told The New York Times. “We are caught right in the middle of it.”
The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada issued a joint statement on May 28 condemning China’s new law. It said Beijing’s move to impose the law rather than going through Hong Kong lawmakers “dramatically erode[s] Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous.” It also said the law would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework and “raise the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes.”
The United Kingdom said if China imposed the law, it would offer a path to citizenship to British National Overseas passport holders in Hong Kong as well as their children and dependents, totaling nearly 3 million people.
The United States also called for the U.N. Security Council to hold a digital meeting to discuss Hong Kong. But Beijing vetoed the meeting, which requires all 15 members to agree to the video conference call.
“For years, the Chinese government and Communist Party have walked back on its commitment to ensure autonomy and freedom for Hong Kong,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “We cannot let Beijing profit from breaking the Sino-British Joint Declaration and trying to crush the spirit of Hong Kong’s people.”