How the US could take to help Uighurs in China

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For several years now, China has been systematically repressing its Uighur Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang — millions of Uighurs have been detained in “reeducation” camps, where they are subjected to grievous human rights abuses including torture, sexual abuse, forced sterilization, family separation, and brainwashing.

Those Uighurs in Xinjiang who manage to avoid the camps still live under oppressive government surveillance and draconian restrictions aimed at erasing their religious and cultural traditions.

As more and more reports emerge of Beijing’s atrocities toward Uighurs, US officials and lawmakers from both parties have begun to loudly condemn China and call for a forceful policy response.

“What has and is happening to the Uighurs in Xinjiang is a human tragedy,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for Asia, told me on Monday. “We cannot stand for it.”

“The Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to systematically violate the fundamental human rights of the Uighur Muslim minority is unconscionable,” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), the vice ranking member of that subcommittee, also told me. “We must continue to not just condemn China’s severe repression of ethnic and religious minorities but proactively hold the [party] to account.”

That rare consensus in Washington has generated some action, most importantly the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law last month. The law imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities involved in abuses in Xinjiang and requires the president to periodically “send Congress a list identifying foreign individuals and entities responsible for such human rights abuses.”

The US has invoked that and other laws to sanction several Chinese companies and individuals  — most prominently Chen Quanguo, who governs Xinjiang and is a top member of the politburo in China.

But many activists and experts say it’s not enough, and that the US can and should do more to pressure China.

Of course, there are a number of areas — international trade, for one — where US-China cooperation is critical, so any policy would have to be weighed against other US interests. Yet experts I spoke to said there are several ways the US could pressure China without fully upending the world’s most vital bilateral relationship. “It’s not all or nothing,” James Millward, a Georgetown University professor who studies China’s repression of Uighurs, told me.

I spoke to nine experts, former US officials, and policymakers to ask them what more the US could feasibly do right now to push China on the Uighur issue. Five clear policy options emerged.

Let’s take each of the five proposals in turn.

1) Build an international coalition to help Uighurs in China

The Trump administration has made combating China a cornerstone of its foreign policy. While most of the struggle centers on the coronavirus and trade, the US in recent months has added Beijing’s mistreatment of Uighurs to its list of grievances against China.

But some experts fear this could end up hurting the Uighur cause. “I am concerned that once again the Uighurs are not being taken seriously, in and of themselves, rather than being used as kind of a pawn in a larger geopolitical strategy,” Dru C. Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, California, who studies the region, told my colleague Jen Kirby.

“Anything the US does on its own will only be read as yet another tactic in its desire to ‘contain’ China,” Jessica Teets, a China expert at Middlebury College who edits the Journal of Chinese Political Science, told me.

One solution, then, is for the US to form a coalition of like-minded countries to put diplomatic and economic pressure on China over the Uighur issue. Experts say many European and Asian nations — like France, Germany, and Japan — would surely join in, and having the US at the forefront of the coalition would give them the political space and backing they don’t yet have to confront China.

“The US cannot solve this ourselves, any more than we could have solved the Holocaust by ourselves,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2009 to 2011.

The US could also try to coax major Muslim-majority nations, namely Saudi Arabia, to form part of the coalition, too, despite their general silence on the issue to date. That’d be an uphill battle — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year defended China’s “right” to place Uighurs in concentration camps, likely in an effort to allow multimillion-dollar trade deals to proceed — but one worth fighting nonetheless.

Such a coalition would lend greater legitimacy to the cause while making any economic sanctions more biting and dwindling the market for Chinese products made by forced Uighur labor. Such results would be far more impactful than just having the US take on China by itself.

So far, the Trump administration has shown little interest in building such a coalition or working alongside allies in general. But if it changed course, it’s possible the US-led group could force some — though not wholesale — change in China. “I doubt that it would be enough to stop the digital surveillance or reeducation camps in Xinjiang, but it might stop these efforts from expanding,” Teets told me.

Building the coalition, though, would just be the start.

2) Cause China economic pain until it reverses course

If there’s one policy proposal to hit China where it hurts, it’s to go after its purse and the suppressive technologies it funds. Experts I spoke to identified four major ways to do just that.

Stop supporting forced Uighur labor

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a House Armed Services Committee member and a leader of the progressive foreign policy movement in Congress, believes the US could ask Customs and Border Protection to ban imports from regions with known Uighur forced labor. Multiple reports have documented products made by Uighurs against their will in the supply chains of major companies including Adidas, Calvin Klein, and H&M.

In fact, the New York Times reports that about one in five pieces of cotton clothing contains cotton or other materials, like yarn, from Xinjiang, which produces about 84 percent of China’s cotton output.

If the US stopped importing products made by unwilling Uighurs, it would lower Chinese revenues and perhaps end that practice, especially if other countries followed suit.

This kind of proposal has gained traction, including with Bera, the Asia subcommittee chief. The US must demand “transparency for supply chains so that companies are not inadvertently sourcing material generated by Uighur forced labor,” he told me. “Industry needs to play their part, but outside advocates and government have a critical role, too.”

It seems like they’re starting to make their voices heard. Last week, more than 180 organizations — including more than 70 Uighur rights groups — called on retailers and suppliers to stop carrying or using products made from forced Uighur labor.

“Now is the time for real action from brands, governments, and international bodies — not empty declarations,” Jasmine O’Connor, the CEO of Anti-Slavery International, said in a statement last Thursday. “The only way brands can ensure they are not profiting from the exploitation is by exiting the region and ending relationships with suppliers propping up this Chinese government system.”

Cease any assistance to China’s mass surveillance and repression capabilities

The second major move would be to ensure no US government agencies or American companies directly or indirectly aid China’s repressive campaign. “It would help make the point that this is an unprecedented system of surveillance and oppression from what we’ve seen in recent history,” said Darren Byler, a region expert at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Chinese government uses mobile apps, facial recognition software, and other programs to track Uighurs in Xinjiang. As the New York Times put it last year, “It is a virtual cage that complements the indoctrination camps.” Some of these technologies couldn’t function without the support of prominent American firms like Hewlett Packard and Intel Corporation.

It’s why Wagner, the second-highest-ranking Republican on the House Asia subcommittee, told me she was “proud” to sign an amendment for this year’s must-pass defense budget bill that will prohibit US companies from exporting equipment to China that could be used to commit human rights abuses. “Congress must act to deny the Chinese government access to cutting-edge technologies that can be used to track and persecute Uighurs,” Wagner told me.

The Trump administration has taken other measures, such as blacklisting nearly 50 Chinese companies solely based on their connections to the mistreatment of Uighurs. Those firms are no longer allowed to buy any parts from US firms without explicit approval from the US government.

That’s a good step, Byler said. “We shouldn’t be supporting tech firms that are automating forms of racialization and forms of Islamophobia targeting Uighurs” and other minority groups. Companies that make voice recognition programs or image recognition technologies that can easily translate Islamic texts should be given particular focus.

Either would help Chinese authorities further keep tabs on Uighurs and others in Xinjiang, so making it harder for the regime to obtain those working systems might delay the persecution — and hurt the country’s bottom line, too.

Keep sanctions going

The third major move would be to continue sanctioning Chinese officials and organizations that are involved with the anti-Uighur campaign. As discussed, that’s already underway, but some experts say more could be done on this front.

A top Communist Party official may not have many financial assets or interests in the US, but their children might, or at least may want to visit or study in the US, said Georgetown’s Millward. That would at least impose a cost beyond just a symbolic sanction, he said.

And there’s still something to be said for the symbolic nature of sanctions, said David Shear, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2014 to 2016. Lining up an ever-increasing set of penalties may “achieve some moderation in the Chinese approach,” even if they don’t have a devastating financial impact, he noted.

Use the 2022 Beijing Olympics as “a key pressure point”

The fourth and final major economic play would be to leverage the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. That kind of event provides a massive boost to a nation’s image — just like the 2008 games in China’s capital did. Corporate sponsorships of the events provide even more international legitimacy. A company may see paying to have its logo tied to the games as just an endorsement for the competition, but others will see it also as an endorsement of the host country.

With that in mind, the US government and civil society could use the next two years to let companies know that backing the 2022 Olympics would be tantamount to backing China’s treatment of Uighurs. That might lead some multinational firms to back off. “If I were a corporation right now, I’d be very leery. We don’t want the 1936 Olympics again,” said Millward, referencing the competition held in Nazi Germany, which featured sponsors like Coca-Cola.

A lack of sponsors — which would also mean a lack of funds — and a large public outcry might then force the Olympic Committee to pick a new country to host the games. That’s a long shot, experts admit, but those who want China to stop interning Uighurs and other minorities should take advantage of the high-profile event to put Beijing on notice.

“The Olympics are a key pressure point,” said the University of Colorado’s Byler.

3) “Name and shame” China with US-gathered intelligence

China’s anti-Uighur campaign has been successful in part because it takes place in a remote part of the world far from public view. The mounting global pressure on Beijing started only after information about the horrors going on leaked out in 2017.

The US could keep the spotlight on this issue, experts say, by continually publishing intelligence documents and other reports that show just how morally appalling the situation in Xinjiang really is. Gathering such intelligence can be difficult, as American spies and other observers aren’t welcome in that region (or much of China, really), but there are ways the US can get around that.

The US could use military assets, like satellites and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft operating beyond Chinese territory to take pictures of the concentration camps and gather other bits of information, suggested Gregson, the retired Marine general and former top Pentagon official. Then, the US could make the gathered data public in an unclassified document with the seal of a federal intelligence agency or even the White House stamped on the front page.

Publishing such documents, maybe in coordination with foreign intelligence agencies, could severely embarrass the Chinese government. “Perhaps China’s knowledge that we are documenting their crimes will be its own deterrent to continuing those crimes,” Gregson added.

There’s actually a mechanism for these kinds of documents to be released. The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 mandates reports to Congress that, among other things, must detail the situation in Xinjiang. The Trump administration and subsequent American leaders could use this legal requirement as an excuse of sorts to keep publishing what it finds out about continued persecution.

Non-government groups, such as human rights organizations and media outlets, can publish what they learn as well, analysts say. Such disclosures not only would inform the public but also let China know it’s being watched by multiple parties.

But, many told me, nothing would have quite the same impact as an official US government document. It ups the ante more than a product by any other actor could.

“Naming and shaming policies from the government are not symbolic because they put real pressure on the target,” Georgetown’s Millward said.

4) Counter China at the UN

A constant of Trump’s foreign policy has been to minimize America’s involvement at the United Nations. But if the US wants to get serious about stopping China from harming more Uighurs, it needs to reverse course.

“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the United Nations” to handle the Uighur issue by imposing multilateral sanctions and other measures “with the US taking the lead,” Lynette Ong, a China expert at the University of Toronto, told me.

That’s easier said than done: China is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which means it has veto power over any proposal brought to the body. And, as of April, a Chinese representative gets to sit on an influential panel of the UN Human Rights Council which oversees personnel.

Without deep US involvement to counter China’s goal to make the UN more Beijing-friendly, then, experts worry there may be no effective way to push back on the country at the global organization.

Take what happened in July 2019: 22 countries, including Japan and the UK (but not the US), wrote a letter to the UN’s top human rights official calling on China to end its “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations” of Uighur and other minorities. Just a week later, 36 countries — led by Saudi Arabia and Russia — released a response defending the Chinese regime’s actions in Xinjiang.

“Nobody can be more concerned about the status of Muslims anywhere in the world than Saudi Arabia,” the kingdom’s UN ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said at the time. “What we have said in that letter is that we support the developmental policies of China that have lifted people out of poverty.”

Some analysts believe that if the US called for action at the UN, perhaps more countries would openly support its pro-Uighur stance. At a minimum, they say, an active push might make it harder for Riyadh and others to so boldly back China’s abusive campaign.

Others I spoke to were more skeptical about prioritizing UN action. It’s a slow-moving organization, and the Uighurs’ need is immediate.

Still, most I spoke to said Washington shouldn’t forgo any forum in which to bring up repression of Uighurs with Beijing. The US must “raise the issue more in meetings with [China] that it’s unacceptable,” said Khanna, the Democratic lawmaker. “It should be a very high priority and a lead point in our bilateral dialogue.”

5) Support Uighurs and their affiliated groups directly wherever possible

Instead of just focusing on punishing China, experts say, the US could equally focus on helping Uighurs in need.

One good place to start would be to allow Uighur refugees to start a new life in the United States. The US could easily be a safe haven for the growing diaspora, the University of Colorado’s Byler noted, especially since many who have fled to countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan remain undocumented and, therefore, might soon be deported back to China.

That, however, would require a massive change in Trump’s refugee policy. Last September, his administration announced the US would accept up to 18,000 refugees over the next year, the fewest in history and down from a cap of 110,000 just two years prior. There’s no formal count of how many Uighur refugees there are worldwide, but some experts I spoke to place the number at around 60,000, with 10,000 already in North America and most of the rest living in Turkey.

Another way the US could help is to provide more money to Uighur support groups. Some focus on human rights issues, providing food, shelter, and more, but the growing repression means they will require more funding in the months and years to come. That could get tricky, Byler noted, as Beijing already suspects groups that get funding from the US government to help Uighurs in China — like the National Endowment for Democracy — are secretly plotting the regime’s overthrow.

No expert I spoke to detailed a way to get around that problem, save for offering covert financial aid. But one proposal from Byler was that a US government agency not overly politicized in the foreign policy space — like the Department of Education, for instance — should take the funding lead. Funding through such an agency might help build cultural institutions for Uighurs outside of the political realm, he said, “though I’m not sure what that would look like.”

Which led to the final proposal: Increase US-Uighur ties to find out what the community needs when they need it. Greater interaction between expat Uighurs and US officials could make the American response more comprehensive. The US government might not be able to assist in every instance, but at least a stronger relationship would form between the two entities.

All of these levers would have to be pulled at once, experts say, not only to show China the world is serious but also to make it harder for Beijing to skirt international action. Those efforts may ultimately fail, but following through on each of the five steps in a coordinated way might be the only real hope of stopping what some experts have described as “genocidal” acts by China.

“The chances of significant change are low whatever we do,” said Shear, the Pentagon’s former top Asia official, “but we should still try.”

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