On Wednesday, June 17, Donald Trump signed into law the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which seeks to punish China for “gross human rights abuses” against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the country’s western Xinjiang province. It is the first piece of legislation in the world targeting a sprawling, years-long detention campaign in China that experts say constitutes the largest internment of ethno-religious minorities since the Holocaust.
The bill has been an awfully long time coming. And the signing comes on the same afternoon that The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of John Bolton’s controversial new book in which the former national security adviser describes Trump telling Chinese president Xi Jinping last year “that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
Congress, which passed the bill with veto-proof majorities in both chambers, feels differently. “Today, in this House of Representatives, in a very strong, bipartisan way, we are sending a message to the persecuted that they are not forgotten,” Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor on May 27. The bill passed the same day that national deaths from the novel coronavirus topped 100,000 and as Americans reeled from the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd. In a season of historic mourning and unrest in this country, troubles on the opposite side of the world might seem temporarily beside the point. But the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act warrants recognition.
Conflict has simmered for decades in Xinjiang between native Uighurs and the ruling Communist Party, but the current crackdown began in earnest in the spring of 2017. Initially, there was little clarity about the unfolding rights abuses; early reporting documented an extensive high-tech surveillance state, in which all manner of daily minutiae might be cause for arrest—growing a beard, contacting friends abroad, and posting religious content online, for example—with the dubious aim of curbing violent extremism. By the end of 2017, authorities were throwing Uighurs in reeducation camps by the thousands, with no pretense whatsoever of due process. A year passed, and that number had exploded to more than 1 million—possibly as high as 3 million, according to one Defense Department estimate, which is the population of Arkansas and roughly a quarter of all Uighurs in the region.
In the camps, journalists and researchers have documented torture, sexual assault, forced abortions, and death. Some evidence suggests organ harvesting, which China denies. Outside the camps, meanwhile, mosques have been bulldozed. Ethnic Han Chinese minders have moved in with Uighur families at the behest of the government, under a “Pair Up and Become Family” program that often finds Han men sleeping in the beds of Uighur women whose husbands are detained. And children—when they are not left to die unattended because their parents have been detained—are corralled into government-run orphanages, where they are educated in the Han Chinese tradition.
The United Nations defines genocide as any “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” including killing members of the group, causing them “serious bodily or mental harm,” imposing conditions on life that would otherwise contribute to the group’s demise, and limiting births among the group or transferring the custody of children away from the group. “All of these actions are being taken against the Uighurs,” Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, told me.
And yet, as the months and years ticked by, world governments piddled.
“There was a collective failure of imagination to understand just what magnitude of human rights violations was coming downstream,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human rights Watch, explained. “And it came at a time when a lot of governments were very poorly prepared to respond to that.”
Europe, rocked by nationalist movements posing an existential threat to the European Union, mustered only reserved and infrequent condemnations. Muslim-majority countries, meanwhile, perceptibly tied up in Beijing’s purse strings, were not only silent but in some cases actively supported China’s policies.
International organizations proved flat-footed. After repeated pleas from rights groups for a UN official to visit Xinjiang, for example, one finally did in June 2019—but it was the counterterrorism chief (a career Russian diplomat), which as a matter of optics aligned perfectly with Communist Party propaganda. Then, in July, 22 UN Human Rights Council member states—not including the United States, because Trump withdrew from the council the month prior—penned a letter censuring China, but, in a break from precedent, no country’s representative would agree to read the letter aloud before the council. “Even countries willing to speak out on the issue were still cautious to not be singled out by the Chinese government,” said Patrick Poon, a human rights researcher in Hong Kong.
In the United States, some officials proved to be regular and reliable backers of the Uighur cause, including some in the Trump administration. But America’s response was tentative in the aggregate and the administration was typically unwilling to upset negotiations in the much-hyped trade war. The Uighur bill was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio in January 2019. (“The time to act is now,” Rubio said then.) There was another, similar bill, however, put forth around the same time, which confused proceedings. The bill further languished as other matters, including Trump’s impeachment, consumed Congress—important matters, to be sure, but ones that Uighur advocates suggested would seem minor, in the long arc of history, when set alongside the erasure of a people. The bill looked ready to finally pass early this year, and then the coronavirus hit.
Of course, a law that comes late is better than no law at all. “It is a historic moment,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the D.C.–based Uighur Human Rights Project, said. “Suffering Uighurs all over the world finally received good news.”
The new legislation, for one, compels the president to sanction officials involved directly in Uighurs’ oppression, including Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary who previously represented Beijing in Tibet and is widely viewed as the architect of the camps. The sanctions—to be issued under the Global Magnitsky Act, which activists have long said should be invoked in this case—would freeze those officials’ American-held financial assets and bar them from traveling to the United States. (Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, said that Magnitsky sanctions carry “a particular stigma,” because they are tied to human rights violations.)
Provisions of the law further call for US companies to mitigate possibilities that their products are contributing to the situation in Xinjiang or benefiting from forced labor in the region; for law enforcement agencies to protect Uighurs in the United States from Chinese government harassment; and for expanded support to Radio Free Asia, a US government–funded news outlet whose Uighur reporters have been at the forefront of Xinjiang coverage.
However, the long delays might lessen the impact of some aspects of the law, advocates say. A significant portion of the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act is devoted to reporting requirements, directing the State Department and intelligence agencies, for example, to report on surveillance technology and camp construction in Xinjiang. “It’s almost too late for that,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher whose painstaking data mining was essential in exposing the camps. “Much of this is water down the river.” Two years ago, Zenz says, immense government intelligence resources might have gone a long way toward illuminating the scope of oppression in Xinjiang; instead, it largely took the work of journalists and researchers like himself, which Zenz calls “a real problem.”
If anything, Zenz says, the oppression in Xinjiang may be entering a new phase, with some camps possibly already in the process of decommissioning and pushing the Uighurs who occupied them into various forms of forced labor. “This bill really should have passed a year ago,” Zenz said. “We don’t need to talk about camp construction and the surveillance state anymore. That’s history. It’s a done deal. We have an ongoing dynamic now.”
As written, the law still leaves room for the president not to implement sanctions if he somehow deems it in the national interest. Apart from his alleged comments to Xi about the camps, Trump has generally shown minimal interest in human rights in China. In October 2019, CNN reported that the US president had pledged to Xi in a phone call that he would keep silent on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong amid trade talks. And in all this time, Trump has said virtually nothing publicly about Xinjiang.
The new law’s shortcomings aside, Rushan Abbas, executive director of the D.C.-based Campaign for Uighurs, expressed optimism that the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, as a world first, might finally signal a lifting of the floodgates for further legislation in the United States—including a new bill targeting forced labor in Xinjiang, introduced in March—and elsewhere. “We should have similar action, similar lobbying, and we should have sanctions implemented in other countries,” Abbas said. Action from other governments was especially critical, she added, to ensure Beijing is not able to frame the new legislation as a matter of routine bickering and bluster between itself and Washington.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uighur Congress in Munich, agrees. “This isn’t only the United States’ problem,” he said. “This injustice is everyone’s problem. This is about being on the right side of history. Being silent is also being complicit.”