Earlier this week, a bipartisan slate of senators took a public, and unprecedented, stance against China’s ongoing campaign to detain upwards of a million ethnic Uyghurs in concentration camps across China’s west.
And if China’s response is anything to go by, the senators touched a nerve.
After 17 American officials — including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) — published a letter calling for potential sanctions on those responsible for the concentration camps, China’s rebuke was swift. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Thursday, “The policies and equal rights that Chinese minorities enjoy are far better than in the U.S., which has lot issues with racism and human rights protection.” Hua added that the U.S. officials should “serve the Americans properly instead of poking their noses in other countries’ affairs and pretending to be a judge of human rights.”
Thus far, it appears that the letter, written to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has had little discernible effect. However, it presented a marked step toward the U.S. highlighting the ongoing plight of the ethnic Uyghur population in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims — and potentially more — are now being detained, with scant communication with the outside world. At last check, China had constructed some 1,300 concentration camps to house the Uyghurs, as well as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, with more camps planned for construction.
The bipartisan letter, written on Wednesday, calls on Pompeo and Mnuchin to consider designating those responsible for the series of camps — “China’s Muslim gulag,” one Xinjiang scholar called them — as individuals and entities to be sanctioned under the U.S.’s Global Magnitsky Act.
As the officials write:
[China’s] Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored. Given the gravity of the situation, and the severity and scope of the rights abuses being perpetrated, we urge you to apply Global Magnitsky sanctions, and consider additional measures, against senior Chinese Government and Communist Party officials who oversee these repressive policies, including [Xinjiang] Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.
Potential designation under the Global Magnitsky Act would freeze any American assets owned by the individuals targeted, as well as prevent them from traveling to the United States. Other individuals thus far sanctioned by the Global Magnitsky Act, signed into law by then-President Obama and expanded under the current administration, range from Dominican politicians who were “engaging in corrupt acts” to Cambodian military leaders who were involved “in serious human rights abuse.” Most pertinently, others who’ve been sanctioned include those responsible for violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar — and a Chinese police official who ran the prison where human rights activist Cao Shunli died.
This week’s letter also follows a similar bipartisan missive to Pompeo last month, highlighting how Chinese authorities in Xinjiang had specifically targeted family members of U.S.-based reporters at Radio Free Asia, one of the few outlets highlighting the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the region. That letter, signed by officials like Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), urged Pompeo, “at every opportunity, to raise this urgent issue in your diplomatic communications with your Chinese counterparts.”
This week’s letter comes after month’s of intermittent reports about disappearing Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the sprawling spread of the concentration camps — which Chinese authorities refer to as “re-education camps” or “vocational schools” — in the region. By all appearances, it appears that Chinese authorities are attempting to eliminate any religious or cultural identity carried by Uyghurs, who refer to Xinjiang as their homeland of East Turkestan.
The numbers of those detained — or those disappeared — aren’t concrete, but have been credibly placed in the millions. A member of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently cited an estimate noting that two million total Muslims had been placed in the Chinese concentration camps. And not a single detainee has been charged with a crime.
Easy call. Nearly a million Chinese minority people in concentration camps for being minorities. Sanction the relevant officials, bring attention to incarcerated #Uyghur in #Xinjiang https://t.co/ltmHcstc6H
— James Millward (@JimMillward) June 30, 2018
Numerous outlets — The Economist, The New York Times, The Global and Mail — have placed China’s policies on par with the worst of apartheid-era South Africa, and the U.S.’s Congressional-Executive Commission on China has described the camps as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
The actual details of what takes place in the camps are scarce. Few have managed to escape, and fewer yet have been willing to share what took place in the camps. As one told the Washington Post, “Each day, inmates were forced to sit for hours and sing — ‘The Communist Party is good. The Communist Party is good,’ as one refrain went.” Another revealed that they were forced to sing chants, including, “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me.”
I cannot emphasize this enough to any Uighur followers I have who are abroad at the moment. Don't go back under any circumstances. The very act of having been abroad is enough to condemn you. They will threaten your family and friends, but your going back will not save them.
— James Palmer (@BeijingPalmer) August 10, 2018
Thus far, the number of confirmed deaths in the camps remains relatively small — although they’ve already begun, and we have no idea how many more have been covered up. (As one China scholar said, the situation “smells of the pre-genocidal.”) China recently announced that it had kicked out other journalists providing critical coverage of the concentration camps. And even providing support for Uyghurs abroad can result in physical violence, as a teacher in the Czech Republic recently learned when he was assaulted by pro-Chinese Communist Party thugs.
— Casey Michel 🇰🇿 (@cjcmichel) August 14, 2018
Needless to say, sanctioning those responsible for the situation in Xinjiang would be a welcome — and overdue — step. And while the threat of sanctions has ratcheted tensions with Beijing the past few days, it could also provide a potential carrot-stick combination in ongoing discussions between Washington and Beijing about tariffs and North Korea alike. If nothing else, though, it’s drawn that much more attention to everything unfolding in Xinjiang — “one of the worst human rights abuses in recent times,” as Xinjiang scholar James Leibold said.