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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.
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.
According to a Chinese government white paper, at least 1.3 million Uyghurs and others have been subjected to “reeducation” since
China has subjected at least 1.3 million Uyghurs and others to “reeducation” since 2015.
The implications of this genocide extend far beyond Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have used the Uyghur population to hone some of the world’s most intrusive surveillance technology. The CCP systematically collects Uyghurs’ biometric data through medical examinations, passport applications, and police checkpoints. The information is then fed into an automated system that can flag individuals who deviate in any way from government-sanctioned conduct, subjecting them to potential investigation and detention. China has now exported this authoritarian technology to over 80 countries across the globe, including Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The camps’ captive sources of labor have infected global supply chains with the awful taint of slavery. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and reporting in The Wall Street Journal, more than 80 global brands—including household names such as Nike, Gap, Hugo Boss, Volkswagen, Heinz, and Campbell Soup—have sourced their goods from Chinese manufacturers that are suspected of engaging in human trafficking. Companies, alongside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied against legislation in the United States that would prohibit these practices. These companies claim they have deployed third-party auditors to verify that their supply chains are free of forced labor. Major independent auditors, however, have refused to work in Xinjiang, citing the prevalence of forced labor and their inability to conduct genuine inspections given ubiquitous surveillance and constraints.
Even though the evidence of these crimes against humanity is incontrovertible, the international community’s response has been lackluster. Many governments, unwilling to risk antagonizing Beijing, continue to prefer inaction. The United States, by virtue of its economic and diplomatic weight, is uniquely positioned to mobilize global action to impose costs on China for its disregard of international norms.
The Biden administration has already pledged to hold China accountable for this ongoing human rights catastrophe. The tone of the administration’s approach was set during Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing, in which the incoming U.S. secretary of state endorsed the determination of his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, that the Chinese government was perpetrating a genocide. Soon after Blinken was sworn in, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union imposed coordinated sanctions against several officials and entities responsible for perpetrating genocidal acts against the Uyghur people. These represented the first European sanctions against Beijing since the imposition of an arms embargo in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Biden administration is now positioned to escalate pressure on China. It should launch additional diplomatic efforts to rally support from U.S. allies and partners, enhance its humanitarian response, implement additional sanctions and visa restrictions, and spearhead efforts to ensure that products made with forced labor do not infect the U.S. and global markets. To coordinate these efforts, it should appoint a high-level envoy within the National Security Council
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.
U.S. sanctions should be expanded to include the key architects of China’s policy in Xinjiang.
Although some Chinese officials will inevitably remain beyond the reach of the law, others could well fall within the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, foreign courts, or international tribunals. The U.S. Genocide Act, for example, grants American courts extraterritorial jurisdiction over genocide if the perpetrator is “present in” the United States. For this reason, the U.S. government must better understand the backgrounds of Chinese officials who step foot on American soil, as well as the businesspeople and companies facilitating the Uyghur genocide by knowingly importing products manufactured with forced labor.
Although the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court has said it lacks sufficient jurisdiction to open an investigation into China’s abuses, other international bodies could still hold Beijing accountable. China has ratified several human rights treaties that maintain expert bodies with the authority to comment on violations of their terms. These include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention Against Torture; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Because the United States is also a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, it can and should initiate a state complaint against China and encourage that convention’s committee to activate its “urgent action procedure,” which would empower it to conduct an independent investigation to document treaty violations.
U.S. sanctions should be expanded to include the key architects of China’s policy in Xinjiang, as well as those
Coordinated sanctions are key to shutting down industries that are raking in profits by exploiting Uyghur forced labor. Virtually the entire solar power supply chain, for example, relies on material from Xinjiang, produced by Chinese companies that are implicated in these abuses. The White House took an important step in late June when it banned solar products made by a Chinese company involved in state-organized forced labor from entering the United States and tightened restrictions on U.S. companies’ ability to export to five Xinjiang-based companies. These moves make it clear to the private sector that there are high regulatory risks associated with continuing to source from or to Chinese companies. They should also spur the U.S. government to develop a strategy for achieving its green agenda without underwriting human rights abuses.
As U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai testified during her confirmation hearing, “The use of forced labor is probably the crudest example of the ‘race to the bottom’ in global trade.” Measures to prevent certain products from entering the United States were designed to deter atrocities just like the ones unfolding in Xinjiang and ensure that U.S. companies are not purveyors of enslavement and tyranny abroad. The Biden administration should now double down on enforcement of its current policies and support new laws to ensure that American companies are not complicit in the crimes being committed against the Uyghurs.
A key step in establishing greater safeguards would be passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which is under consideration in Congress. The act would establish a presumption, absent a certification by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that all goods produced in Xinjiang are made with forced labor. It would expand on piecemeal enforcement tactics focused on specific products and suppliers.
Congress should also ensure that no American is profiting from the construction of the open-air digital prison engulfing Xinjiang. Legislators should bar U.S. persons from holding stock in Chinese tech companies that are implementing the Xinjiang surveillance network, including those providing artificial intelligence and facial recognition services. Numerous publicly traded Chinese tech companies are included in emerging-market indexes held by public pension funds, university endowments, individual retirement plans, and investment portfolios. It is time to exclude these companies from U.S. capital markets.
Finally, the 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Beijing, represent a unique and potent point of leverage over China. In 2008, when China hosted the Summer Olympics, the government violated explicit promises to respect press freedom and allow peaceful assembly during the games. Instead, it engaged in rampant human rights abuses, forcibly evicting residents to make way for construction projects and tightening its control over speech and assembly. At the time, the world remained silent; U.S. President George W. Bush even attended the opening ceremony. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.
The Chinese government has, through its own actions, made the Beijing Olympics into a referendum on the Uyghur genocide. The world’s athletes should not be expected to compete against the backdrop of concentration camps. Washington and like-minded governments should at a minimum organize a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. If the situation in Xinjiang does not improve, this coalition should find a way to relocate the event. Such steps would deflate the Chinese government’s narrative that its status as host of the Olympics signifies that it is a law-abiding nation enjoying the world’s admiration.
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.
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