What America Owes the Uyghurs

What America Owes the Uyghurs

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There is a word for what is happening in the Xinjiang region of China: genocide. Chinese authorities have rounded up millions of Uyghurs and other minorities as part of their campaign of persecution and cultural eradication. Former detainees and prisoners report that they have suffered torture, rape, forced labor, and involuntary abortion and sterilization in state-run facilities. At least 800,000 children have been separated from their families.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is on record declaring that the Chinese government’s actions amount to genocide. Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress have endorsed this horrifying conclusion, as did the Trump administration. As a party to the Genocide Convention, the United States now has a legal and moral obligation to try to end these mass atrocities. The Biden administration has already made some important progress. It mobilized its allies to impose joint targeted sanctions on perpetrators in March, then secured an unprecedented commitment from the G-7 to address Uyghur forced labor in global supply chains in June. Yet more must be done.

Given China’s global economic and political influence, it is easy to assume that there are few effective levers to influence its handling of human rights issues. But there are in fact many tools at the Biden administration’s disposal that will impose real costs on the perpetrators and enablers of these atrocities. Taken together, these steps would pressure Beijing to reverse course, offer humanitarian assistance to the Uyghur people, and ensure that American companies are not complicit in the abuses underway. These measures would also confirm Biden’s pledge to place human rights at the center of his foreign policy and send a powerful message that the United States will not tolerate efforts to wipe out an entire ethnoreligious group.

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The Chinese government justifies its policies in Xinjiang by asserting that it is threatened by what it calls “the three evil forces”—separatism, terrorism, and extremism. This propagandistic rhetoric is constructed to mask the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot tolerate any culture that interferes with total obedience to the state. That is why it has always been hostile to the Uyghurs, an ethnoreligious community that practices a moderate form of Sunni Islam and speaks a Turkic language similar to Uzbek or Turkish. The CCP sees the Uyghurs’ vibrant religious practices, unique culture, and ethnic pride as signs of disloyalty, sources of future unrest, and threats to national unity.

Although Uyghurs have faced political repression since Mao Zedong first occupied their homeland in 1949, the campaign against them has escalated dramatically over the past decade. As leaked documents have revealed, the CCP in 2014 launched the so-called Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism, which institutionalized restrictions on Uyghurs’ civil liberties and resulted in thousands of enforced disappearances. It then unleashed a brutal set of “de-extremification measures” in early 2017, which involved the mass detention of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslim groups in industrial-scale fortified camps. Individuals who engaged in Islamic religious practices—such as growing a beard, abstaining from alcohol, or wearing a headscarf—were the first targets. Those who had too many children, knew someone who had traveled abroad, or wrote or spoke about Uyghurs’ religious and cultural traditions also often found themselves in prison.

China initially denied the camps’ existence. Later, it described them as an attempt to “reeducate” people susceptible to extremism and to provide “vocational training” to the unemployed. Chinese officials rushed out ever more outrageous claims as international criticism of the camps mounted: they said that the government aimed to “transform” Uyghurs into “normal” human beings, that Uyghurs are the “happiest Muslims in the world,” and that Uyghur women have been liberated from being “baby-making machines.”

According to a Chinese government white paper, at least 1.3 million Uyghurs and others have been subjected to “reeducation” since 2015. The children of these detainees, meanwhile, have been placed in state-run boarding schools where they are indoctrinated with pro-CCP propaganda and punished for speaking a word of the Uyghur language.

On the diplomatic front, Blinken should immediately request to visit Xinjiang. This move would hold both symbolic and strategic importance: a historic visit by a top American diplomat would spotlight the Chinese government’s international crimes, demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to improving the lives of the Uyghurs, and lay the groundwork for further international coordination. Such a trip would also send a message to neighboring countries and Turkey that they must provide safe haven to Uyghur refugees and migrants despite intense Chinese pressure to forcibly deport these citizens.

The Biden administration should assemble a coalition to request a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, the international body charged with promoting human rights, to address China’s crimes. China has stonewalled UN requests for unfettered access to Xinjiang for three years. It is time for the UN to launch a formal investigation—as it has done for Syria and Myanmar—to build on the copious evidence already available. Even when China inevitably refuses access, much can be done from outside the country using open-source investigative techniques and new technology platforms.

Blinken could also organize a “friends of the Uyghurs” summit to build support among U.S. allies and signatories to the Genocide Convention. At this forum, countries could coordinate their responses to the ongoing genocide, particularly when it comes to humanitarian assistance, human rights documentation, and trade restrictions. It could also bring greater attention to the abuses underway. The United States should particularly encourage Muslim-majority states—which have been conspicuously silent about China’s persecution of Uyghurs—to speak out against Beijing’s crimes.

U.S. policy toward China must also aim to alleviate the humanitarian plight facing the Uyghur people. The U.S. government should designate Uyghurs as eligible for “P-2” status to fast-track refugee resettlement claims. Uyghurs who are already in the United States should be granted Temporary Protected Status, which would enable them to remain and work lawfully in the United States while it is impossible for them to return home.

In keeping with the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, a 2020 law designed to coordinate federal action on abuses in Xinjiang, the Biden administration should demand that China release family members of Uyghur Americans from the camps. It should also insist that Beijing cease the systematic harassment and imprisonment of those with relatives serving in entities connected to the U.S. government. More than half of the Uyghur reporters working for the congressionally funded Radio Free Asia, for example, have lost family members to the camps. In addition, the United States should underwrite psychosocial rehabilitation within diaspora communities to address the trauma experienced by Uyghurs who have survived enforced disappearances, detention, and persecution or have witnessed such attacks on their loved ones. And to counteract China’s efforts at cultural erasure, Washington should support Uyghur cultural and religious institutions in the diaspora.

These diplomatic efforts should be bolstered by rigorous documentation of the Chinese government’s abuses—efforts that are required by law under the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act but are now months overdue. The administration should move swiftly to compile comprehensive dossiers on perpetrators to lay the groundwork for additional measures of accountability, including potential criminal cases.

Nobody should be under any illusion that it will be easy to alter the Chinese government’s behavior in Xinjiang. Beijing is unlikely to ever admit it is feeling the heat of international pressure or changing its policies toward the Uyghur people. But that does not mean all efforts are in vain: if a strong U.S. response is properly coordinated with others in the international community, it will help alleviate the profound suffering of millions of Uyghurs, take a substantial toll on China’s bottom line, and ensure that the United States and its allies are not inadvertently underwriting the CCP’s genocidal campaign.

It would also send the message that the world is ready to impose tangible costs on those who would attempt to wipe out an entire ethnoreligious group. The United States did right by describing the appalling atrocities against the Uyghurs as genocide. Now the Biden administration must organize a meaningful international response. The Uyghur people deserve nothing less.