The Chinese government is trying to extinguish the ethnic and religious Uyghur Muslim minority. Experts estimate that up to 1.8 million Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims are detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang. China shows no signs of ending this horrific practice.
The global backlash against China increases every day for its inadequacy in addressing COVID-19 and its trampling of Hong Kong’s freedoms. This backlash provides a window of opportunity for the Trump Administration–and the world–to highlight other grievous actions taken by China, such as its systematic abuses of religious freedom for Muslims, Christians, and people of many other faiths.
Senator Marco Rubio has introduced new bipartisan legislation which advocates for sanctioning those responsible for “gross human rights violations” against the Uyghurs. The United States should take this opportunity to shed light on just one of China’s numerous human rights abuses by passing this legislation and standing for human rights.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2020 annual report in April. The report focused on religious freedom around the world. USCIRF labeled China as a country of “particular concern.” Recommendations included imposing sanctions on Chinese government agencies, intensified countering of the Chinese government's influence operations in the United States, and passing legislation to promote religious freedom, including the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The Act prevents goods made with forced labor in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang from entering U.S. markets.
As expected, the ruling Chinese Communist Party denied any culpability. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang stated, “We urge the US side to respect the basic facts, discard arrogance and prejudice, stop the wrong practice of publishing such reports year after year, and stop using religious issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
But the U.S. is not alone in condemning the Chinese government. The international community is aware of China's violations against the Uyghurs. Twenty-five European countries plus Australia, New Zealand, and Japan signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council condemning the persecution of Uyghur Muslims. The European Parliament demanded that China close its re-education camps and highlighted "torture, digital surveillance, and arbitrary detentions without any charge." The Members of Parliament called on the Council to adopt targeted sanctions and freezing of assets.
Human rights organizations have also led the way in condemning China's violations, as the Human Rights Watch has in its annual report. The report states, under President Xi Jinping, “thirteen million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang are suffering.” It goes on to criticize the government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” which includes "mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and the destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage."
The report further states that Muslims are "forced to disavow their identity and become loyal government subjects." Others have been "prosecuted and sent to prison" while some received "lengthy and even death sentences for crimes that violate fundamental rights”. These violations include “splitism” or “subversion,” because the Chinese government describes minorities as "splitists" for not adhering to Beijing's agenda.
In a joint letter to the UN Secretary-general, five human rights organizations have called to “publicly and unequivocally condemn the Chinese government's abusive policies.” But letters and joint statements have done little to curb the violations. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government has not stopped targeting Uyghurs.
Activists cite “cramped, unhygienic conditions in the camps for the untrammeled spread of coronavirus.” The Chinese government has also increased its surveillance of the minority group as spies target the smartphones of Uyghurs in a government-backed hacking campaign.
Those Uyghurs who live outside of China are also at risk. They are worried their rights are being exchanged for political gains. One country the Uyghurs thought they could count on was Turkey. Turkey’s President Erdogan has stated, “it is a fact the peoples of China’s Xinjiang region live happily in China’s development and prosperity.”
However, new documents reveal that Turkey is abiding by Beijing’s extradition requests. The documents show extradition requests were "accepted by the Turkish Ministry of Justice." In one example, a Uyghur man living in Turkey since 2014 was denied a renewal of his Chinese passport in Turkey by Chinese embassy officials. This paved the way for Turkish authorities to detain and send him to criminal court after claiming he had ties with a pro-Islamic State website. Such developments took place after Beijing asked Turkish authorities to “seize or freeze his assets, arrest him and repatriate him back to China.” Another example reveals that Turkish authorities arrested and imprisoned Uyghurs with family members, including children.
An estimated 35,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, but many are being detained. Uyghurs worry China’s close economic ties with the Turkish government is to blame. Their rights are being ignored due to China’s “growing diplomatic and economic clout.”
President Donald Trump, along with Congress, can take action by applying current laws as well as enacting new ones, such as the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Under current law, the Global Magnitsky Act allows U.S. sanctions on human rights abuses around the world. This received wide bipartisan support and calls for punishing top Chinese officials for detaining Uyghurs in internment camps.
Trump must act against China for its human rights abuses, and he would not be alone. As Secretary Pompeo stated, China’s treatment of Uyghurs is the “stain of the century.” European nations among others around the world would support America’s actions. This is an opportunity to work together and hold the Chinese government accountable.
Diliman Abdulkader is an advisor to Freedom to Believe and the director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, LLC. Follow him on Twitter @D_abdulkader