US takes steps to stop China’s abuse of Uyghurs — as should other countries
On May 27, the House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, voting overwhelmingly to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for internment camps in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million ethnic Muslims are forcibly detained. The legislation condemns the Chinese Communist Party for the detention centers and recommends a tougher response to human rights abuses suffered by Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities.
In a floor speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called out Beijing’s “barbarous actions” targeting the Uyghur people, calling the human rights abuses an outrage to the collective conscience of the world. She declared that the persecuted in Xinjiang are not forgotten, even though Chinese Communist officials might tell them they are. Once he signs the bill, President Trump will have 180 days to submit a report to Congress identifying Chinese nationals and government officials who are responsible for carrying out torture against the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz or other Muslims in China.
The legislation requires the administration to sanction those identified by blocking their access to any property in the United States and denying them permission to enter the country. It states that U.S. policy toward China should be linked to China’s ending the concentration camps, releasing its political prisoners, ceasing its mass surveillance of citizens, and ending human rights abuses and severe restrictions of religious and cultural practices in Xinjiang.
It also requires a series of reports from U.S. government agencies including the State Department and intelligence community on the situation in Xinjiang, as well as efforts to protect ethnic Uyghurs in the U.S. who may be experiencing harassment or intimidation by China. This requirement reminds us that the Chinese government has a history of repressing minority groups in western China, denying them civil, political and religious freedoms, as well as freedom of expression, fair trials and movement rights.
The people confined in internment camps over the past few years have described political indoctrination, torture, beatings, food deprivation and denial of religious, cultural and linguistic freedoms. Minorities with citizenship of other countries complain about threats and harassment from Chinese officials. In testimony at a 2018 congressional hearing, Mihrigul Tursun, an ethnic Uyghur, recalled her horror at the torture and sexual abuse she endured in the detention camp. Her Chinese jailers pinned her to a table and allowed electrical currents to course through her body, and they mocked her belief in God, she said.
China initially denied the presence of such camps, and even now tries to portray them as vocational training centers. The Chinese government has used lies, censorship and economic coercion to stop discussion of the camps. But documents leaked to the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have exposed Chinese brutality and China’s plan to erase the influence of Islam in western China by bulldozing mosques. In the leaked documents, Chinese officials advocated for showing “absolutely no mercy” in dealing with Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims. In a speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the People’s Republic must wield its weapons without hesitation. In February 2017, he told police officers and troops in Ürümqi, the capital Xinjiang, to prepare for an obliterating offensive.
By passing the legislation, U.S. lawmakers have shown “true global leadership,” said Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat. He urged the rest of the free world to take note and to take action to end the Chinese government’s atrocities in Xinjiang. The U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security in May added nine more Chinese companies to the 28 entities it listed in October 2019 for involvement in human rights abuses against ethnic Muslims, including forced labor to construct China’s high-tech police state or produce products.
These are the sort of actions the U.S. should take. According to a study by our organization, Citizen Power Initiatives for China, China has created a “cotton gulag” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The region produces 84 percent of China’s cotton output, and is a primary supplier and exporter of cotton, textiles and apparel products. Xinjiang is also home to a large percentage of China’s prison population and these inmates serve as a slave labor force in cotton production, from cotton field reclamation to planting, harvesting, processing and garment making.
We commend the Commerce Department for continuing to take steps to respond effectively to the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang. It is encouraging that the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China was established recently by democratic countries — a significant step toward confronting China collectively on its human rights abuses and other important issues. We hope the other democracies follow the U.S. lead in pursuing actions against China for its atrocities against ethnic minorities.
Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.