For a long time, the world has ignored reports of China’s massive ban and forced labor of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities in the northwest Xinjiang region. Now, both CNN AND BBC have published deeply and horribly reported accounts of rapes, abuses, and torture detailed by Uighur women held in China’s internment camps.
China since then prohibited BBC World News from the country broadcast and denied the abuse, showing CNN that “it is strictly forbidden to insult and abuse trainees in any way.” But women’s accounts are added to a record that includes reports of forced abortions and sterilizations, high-tech supervision, and Uighur children are separated from their parents.
This genocide – this is what it is – is an urgent test for President Joe Biden’s new administration and for the international community. Either the United States and the world will finally go beyond lukewarm criticism and respond with real action, or we may forget values, universal rights, and international law.
The term genocide should not be used casually. But it is correct to use it to describe China’s treatment of Uighurs. UN Genocide Convention and the US domestic law make it clear that genocide does not necessarily involve the immediate destruction of the group by mass murder, but rather that the destruction of the group in whole or in part must be the intended outcome. Disputes between lawyers and experts create a distraction that simply allows China to continue its genocidal campaign.
Encouragingly encouraging Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken used the term genocide and committed to leads the global effort to end gender-based violence. But the message of the new administration has been confused by other senior officials who have rhetorically defended, and Biden himself drew criticism after a CNN City Hall last week when he seemed to minimize genocide as part of a “different norm”. Even his positive statements should not yet be backed by politics. This was illustrated in Biden’s example the first call as president with Xi Jinping of China. Biden raised his concerns over the oppression of the Uighurs, which, though a good step, was insufficient when not supported by uniform US policy. What is needed is a comprehensive strategy that holds China accountable for human rights abuses against Uighurs and prioritizes ending violence.
The first step is to articulate a clear, unified policy for the United States. Lack of clarity is nothing new. While former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly stated crimes against Uighurs a genocide, the Trump administration’s approach to China and to human rights was broader stained and inconsistent at best.
Biden has a chance to do better. A clear and consistent position from the US would allow an entire government response and ensure Uighur Human Rights Policy Act AND Section 307 of the Tariff Act fully implemented. These laws sanction parties involved in human rights abuses, identify where goods produced by forced labor are entering the U.S. supply chain, and ban their import.
This will be essential because Xinjiang produces 85% of China and 20% of the world’s cotton, according to the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. The DC-based tank, formerly known as the Center for Global Policy, launched a 2020 report which found “strong evidence that Xinjiang’s cotton-majority production” involves a state-run austerity program targeting ethnic minority groups. “
China is accused of forcing Uyghurs to manufacture technology, clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) – most of them to be exported to the US for profit. There are also allegations of Uyghur forced labor used to make hair products sold in the US Ex-detainees told CNN their hair was removed by force during internment. (Beijing ka denied the charges of mistreatment of workers.)
The whole governance means that this can not be a concern only for State Department diplomats working for human rights. Stopping a genocide should be a priority for any government agency dealing with China. Must appear in conversations about trade, technology, terrorism, climate and global health. Beijing needs to understand that this is not a concern that can be set aside – it will be the priority and the center of any interaction.
Furthermore, an inter-agency response should focus particularly on allegations of gender-based violence committed against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Biden has already created one White House Gender Policy Council and has made it clear that he plans to engage with the UN Women’s agenda, peace and security (neglected by the Trump administration) to place gender equality and freedom from gender-based violence at the heart of American diplomacy. In his first week in office, Biden overturned Mexico City Policy (or “global gag rule “ restored by Trump) limiting foreign aid to women’s sexual and reproductive health. But a broad government focus on protecting and advancing women’s health, rights and safety would be futile if it fails to reach out to Uighurs, especially given the evidence in the BBC and CNN reports.
This evidence should also force Biden to reconsider U.S. involvement in the Olympics. Too often in the past, hosting the Olympics has allowed authoritarian regimes to infiltrate propaganda and gain legitimacy – from the Nazis in 1936 to the Soviets in 1980 to the Chinese Communist Party in 2008 and Vladimir Putin to Russia in 2014. In response to the repression of China’s Uighur communities and other human rights abuses, over 180 human rights groups AND international lawmakers are calling for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing or boycotted altogether.
When the White House was recently asked about this, missed a critical opportunity to condemn China’s human rights abuses and to affirm US leadership on the issue. The United States needs to lead multilateral efforts, especially with Muslim-led countries. Silence, if not complete sedation by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation has been embarrassing. We need all hands on deck for this effort and the international community must declare with one voice that participation in the Olympics depends on progress for the Uighurs.
Further, Biden must not ease the pressure on the Uighur genocide in order to achieve other pressing priorities with China. Biden ran a promise to put pressure on China – the world the largest carbon emitter – to stop subsidizing coal exports and contracting its pollution to other countries. Climate change is clearly an existential priority. But the President’s Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry was right when he announced recently that the US would not trade other US interests to make climate progress with China. We must hold him and other senior officials accountable for this promise. We cannot sacrifice one goal for another, especially when this acute human suffering is involved.
I have worked with victims of sexual violence in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. I have seen the world move away from previous horrors and I have seen accountability come too late, if at all. This time should be different. As the Biden administration works to reorient US foreign policy to ensure it conforms to American values, it must signal to the world that China’s treatment of Uighurs will not be tolerated.