Uighur Concentration Camps in China: New Sanctions Are Not Enough

Jimmy Quinn

If there was previously any question whether the Chinese Communist Party’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in the Xinjiang region rises to the level of genocide, new reports released early Monday morning leave little room for doubt. A collaboration between the Associated Press and Adrian Zenz, one of the world’s top scholars on the Xinjiang concentration camps, has revealed a systematic CCP effort to forcibly sterilize and administer birth control to Uighurs and members of other minority communities in the region while simultaneously working to increase the country’s Han Chinese population.

The situation in Xinjiang represents one of the most egregious human-rights abuses in the world today. While access to the region is limited, and while the inner workings of the camps are shrouded by CCP officials, reporters and researchers have over the past three years pieced together significant portions of a story showing Beijing’s attempts to stamp out Muslim minority communities in the region. However, in the face of disturbing evidence, the international response has lagged. To date, only the United States has taken action in response to this systematic elimination of China’s Muslim minorities, but even Congress’s recent sanctions legislation might not go far enough.

Monday’s reports, which include some of the most shocking revelations so far, have the potential to shift the needle, if policymakers make it a priority to respond to the CCP’s horrific actions in Xinjiang.

The AP’s interviews with dozens of victims and leaked documents analyzed by Zenz tell the story of the Chinese government’s campaign to lower the birthrate of minority populations in China’s far west, particularly targeting women with more than three children. Previous reports had documented specific instances of forced sterilization performed on women threatened with detention as well as on individuals already detained in the camps. These women have been subjected to fines, detention, and the forced administering of contraceptive devices and drugs, the reports reveal. Monday morning’s revelations, though, provide the first comprehensive account of the concerted government effort to sterilize large groups of Uighur women.

Zenz’s research also backs up previous reports revealing “birth control violations” as the most common cause for internment in Xinjiang’s concentration camps. The “education and training” facilities in the Xinjiang autonomous region are estimated to hold more than 1 million people. A 2018 survey indicated that up to 3 million Xinjiang residents have been forced to undergo some form of political “reeducation.” And experts and observers have for the past few years warned that the situation in Xinjiang teeters on the verge of genocide. The latest evidence, says Zenz’s report, published by the Jamestown Foundation, provides “the strongest evidence yet that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang meet one of the genocide criteria cited in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

The CCP is clearly responsible for widespread human-rights violations in Xinjiang. What remains unclear, though, is whether the CCP’s detractors around the world will take decisive action. Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act earlier this month, after John Bolton alleged that Trump had expressed approval of the camps to General Secretary Xi. (The Trump administration denies this charge.) The legislation calls for visa restrictions and asset freezes to be placed on officials responsible for the CCP’s Xinjiang policy. The legislation followed previous action by the Trump administration to target CCP officials involved in running the camps. In June 2018, the State Department explicitly condemned the camps in its Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

In interviews with National Review last week, experts hailed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act as a step in the right direction. But their endorsement of the legislation was mixed with skepticism that it would be enough.

“The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act comes about a year too late. It would’ve been really good in spring or summer last year. It would have been much more effective,” said Zenz, who is a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Although many of the provisions contained in the legislation were a step in the right direction, he says, they come “quite late in the game.” He notes that the legislation, which was initially introduced in January 2019, faced delays at three stages: reconciliation of the different versions of the bill in the House and Senate, an intervention by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to put the bill on hold during the administration’s trade-deal negotiations with Beijing, and, finally, impeachment earlier this year.

This raises questions about the Trump administration’s leadership on the issue. In an interview with Axios on June 21, Trump said that he has held off on imposing sanctions for the concentration camps to secure a trade deal with China. That said, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials have consistently condemned and pushed for action on the developments that have taken place in Xinjiang over the past three years. The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act is Congress’s attempt to compel a strong U.S. response.

In addition to directing the president to sanction CCP officials responsible for the camps, the law calls for the executive branch to draft reports on a range of related topics. Nury Turkel, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, tells National Review that one of the most important parts of the law is a provision requiring the FBI to investigate the CCP’s harassment of Uighurs in the United States. Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor with decades of experience studying Xinjiang, told National Review that the reporting requirements are “the real power in the legislation.” While the visa bans and asset freezes are a good step, CCP officials involved in the camps don’t visit the United States or deposit money where U.S. sanctions would pose a problem for them.

Another provision requires the director of National Intelligence to submit a report to Congress detailing how Chinese companies facilitate mass surveillance, forced labor, and operation of the camps in Xinjiang. This will be useful if, as he hopes, we mount an international campaign to rebuke commercial entities that profit from the camps — a “grassroots movement akin to the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s.”  “If you hit China’s economy on that level,” he says, “it would inflict new economic pain, and it may result in the government’s rethinking its policies domestically.”

Such a movement does not now exist, though. And the United States and Australia are the only countries that have outright condemned the Uighur concentration camps. “The international community has been silent for the most part. Expressing their concern is not the same as taking action,” says Turkel, who co-founded the Uighur Human Rights Project. The Muslim-majority countries that could normally be expected to condemn the mistreatment of those who share their religion have remained silent, if not acquiescent to Beijing. Turkel singles out Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for accepting the CCP’s claims that the concentration camps are a reasonable response to Islamic extremism in the region.

Other Western countries have neglected to do more than express concern at the treatment of the Uighurs, even as the CCP harasses Uighurs in European countries. For its part, the U.N. Human Rights Council has yet to hold a debate on Xinjiang — last week the chamber adopted a resolution echoing Xi Jinping’s language on human rights.

This is a dire state of affairs. But there is some reason to hope that the laggard international response might eventually shape up. Last week, a group of U.N. experts called for measures to investigate and monitor Chinese human-rights abuses. And following yesterday morning’s revelations, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China — a group of more than 100 legislators from over a dozen countries — pledged “urgent political action” and called for a U.N. General Assembly resolution to investigate Xinjiang. U.S. allies have started to recognize the challenge that the CCP poses to free and open societies. Following the outbreak of the pandemic and the ensuing Wolf Warrior excesses of Chinese diplomats, European attitudes toward Beijing have started to harden.

Meanwhile, another bill on Xinjiang awaits consideration in Congress. In March, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which requires companies that sell products sourced from Xinjiang to prove that they were made without forced labor. With the 2020 campaign in full swing, the bill has been a low priority. But it can make a significant difference, and today’s news should galvanize congressional action.

The new reports should be enough for governments to call the CCP’s systematic elimination of religious minorities in Xinjiang a genocide, the label that it deserves. However, this comes with an obligation to act that might inconvenience Western leaders. At the very least, the label of genocide will create a moral obligation to impose stricter rules for companies that source their products from Xinjiang and penalize those that rely on the labor of concentration-camp detainees — a list, we are learning, that might include many well-known brands. A State Department designation of genocide might also create obligations for the United States under international law, and it might also hurt cooperation with China in other areas, such as delicate trade negotiations. But if “Never Again” means anything, we must take these risks.

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