America must reclaim its “credibility and moral authority” in the world, President Joe Biden said Thursday at the State Department in his first foreign policy address since taking office. “We’re going to reengage the world and take on the enormous challenges we face,” the president said, including by “standing up for democracy and human rights around the world.”
In concert with allies, Biden said, America will also “push back on China’s attack on human rights.” To Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington-based Uighur Human Rights Project, the speech was refreshing to hear. “This is hope,” Kanat said. “For Uighurs around the world, this is a comfort.”
Since early 2017, Beijing has waged a sweeping campaign of mass surveillance and arbitrary detention targeting Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority ethnic group, in China’s western Xinjiang province. On the premise of counterterrorism, authorities have imprisoned more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in what China terms “vocational training centers,” where in reality detainees are subject to all manner of torture and cruelty, including, for women, forced sterilization. More recently, Uighurs have been pressed into forced labor, especially to pick cotton that finds its way into clothing by many top global brands.
The situation in Xinjiang, which constitutes the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust, was well-documented by researchers and journalists—often at significant personal risk—and loudly decried by activist groups. Yet the response by international governments was tepid and meandering. World leaders didn’t want to anger economically mighty China.
Former president Donald Trump, for one, is reported to have shown little interest in human rights, in China or elsewhere. He admitted once to Axios that he delayed most action on Xinjiang to the benefit of trade negotiations with China (which, in the end, failed to achieve their intended effects anyway for the United States). In private, Trump also allegedly told Chinese president Xi Jinping he approved of the camps, a claim made by former national security adviser John Bolton which Trump later denied. The former administration did eventually impose penalties on Chinese officials and companies it deemed complicit in the violations, including visa restrictions and export bans. Legislation, passed last summer with bipartisan, veto-proof majorities in both chambers of Congress, compelled executive action in the form of sanctions. And, on the last full day of the Trump presidency, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo called China’s abuses “genocide,” a rare formal designation that typically entails a strong government response.
Biden’s team agrees. In marked contrast to Trump, who said nothing publicly about Xinjiang while president, Biden raised the issue regularly on the campaign trail, including during the Democratic primaries; last August, his campaign took the then-forward-leaning step of labeling China’s treatment of Uighurs “genocide.” And on the same day that Pompeo issued his declaration, now–secretary of state Antony Blinken concurred with that assessment during his Senate confirmation hearing; Blinken again affirmed that “genocide is committed against the Uighurs” in his first public remarks as secretary.
“There’s a recognition by officials in both parties that this transcends party politics,” said Nury Turkel, a commissioner at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “It’s a moral issue. It’s an American issue.” Still, Turkel said, Biden’s inauguration is particular cause for hope, given what Turkel described as the new president’s strong diplomatic and human rights record. For one thing, Biden was instrumental in the 1990s to the reconstitution of Radio Free Asia, whose Uighur Service reporters have proved critical to illuminating Xinjiang’s plight nearly three decades later.
Beyond expanding the sanctions implemented during Trump’s tenure, Turkel—a Uighur American lawyer who, in his post, works directly with government leaders to craft rights-related policy—outlined practical steps the new administration could take to affect progress. These included: taking a leadership role on new legislation in Congress that targets forced labor in Xinjiang; explore legal pathways for Uighur Americans, who near-unanimously are traumatized by China’s actions and even targeted on American soil by Chinese agents, to hold accountable Chinese firms operating in the United States and involved in the Xinjiang crackdown (specifically by limiting those firms’ diplomatic immunity); and expediting cases of Uighurs in the United States seeking asylum, as well as welcoming more Uighurs into the United States who are at risk of deportation to China by third-party countries.
It’s also imperative, Turkel said, for the administration to take a hard look at America’s own domestic policies.
“It’s very difficult advocating for the rights of Uighurs when we have detention facilities run by ICE on our southern border,” Turkel said. “And it was almost impossible to explain that China is engaging in serious religious persecution, when the rhetoric coming out of Washington didn’t echo American values.”
Whatever steps Biden takes, though, forcing China’s hand will prove a difficult task. The Communist Party views its perceived threat of terrorism from Xinjiang in existential terms; it goes to great lengths to defend its policies, including by corralling explicit support for its policies from dozens of countries in the UN. Sanctions and other punitive measures are essential, experts say, but imposing economic costs so steep that the Communist Party will change course is a dubious proposition. Moreover, China has threatened to withhold cooperation on all-important issues such as climate change should Washington push too far.
“This will be the defining human rights issue of the coming years,” Jordan Schneider, an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security and host of the ChinaTalk podcast, said. “But there are stakes. It’s easy to rail on Sudan [for rights violations]. It’s harder, when the chips are down, to pick a fight with China.”
And so, in addition to concrete policy, Biden must use the bully pulpit of the presidency to direct attention to Xinjiang. “My only theory of change is that this becomes deeply embarrassing for Xi in a way that it isn’t right now, because it’s just not on people’s minds,” Schneider said. That means speeches about Xinjiang, raising the issue regularly in international forums, and perhaps hosting events with Uighur leaders at the White House.
The United States needn’t be alone, of course. Trump spurned allies and international organizations, but consensus among democratic leaders—many of whom might hesitate to run afoul of Beijing on their own—is necessary, experts and advocates say, to repair mechanisms (like the UN) that might otherwise have served to prevent these abuses. “By working with like-minded countries, the Biden administration can pursue a much more effective policy to stop human rights abuses in Xinjiang and ensure accountability for those responsible,” said Joanne Lin, director of advocacy and public affairs for Amnesty International USA.
Indeed, in his remarks Thursday at the State Department, Biden repeatedly stressed the importance of diplomacy and pledged to rebuild “the muscle of democratic alliances.” The president further announced an executive order to restore America’s refugee admissions program “to help meet the unprecedented global need.” He tied the act of defending equal rights around the world, including “people of every ethnic background and religion,” to the work of preserving the same rights at home.
Addressing concerns that the administration might soften its stance on human rights to secure cooperation in other areas, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate change, told reporters on January 27, “That’s not going to happen.” Good thing, experts say, because in the end China’s leaders will pursue what they view as their best interests regardless; that is, if President Xi chooses to work with the United States on climate change, it will be because climate action is good for China more than the result of US outreach. And there’s precedent for countries finding common ground amid tensions: For example, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated on nuclear disarmament—in some ways the climate crisis of another era—during the Cold War.
“We cannot relegate this issue,” Kanat, the Uighur Human Rights Project director, said. “We should not have business as usual with a country committing genocide. If we ignore genocide and have normal relations, that is not a world that humanity should want to see.”