This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. lawmakers have reintroduced legislation that would hold China accountable for rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where more than 1 million people are believed to have been held in “political re-education camps” over the past two years.
The bipartisan “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act,” put forward Thursday by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, would dedicate new resources from the U.S. State Department, FBI, and other intelligence agencies to documenting abuse of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in the XUAR, as well as Beijing’s intimidation of U.S. citizens and residents on American soil.
“The United States must hold Chinese government and Communist Party officials responsible for gross human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity, including the internment in ‘political reeducation’ camps of a million or more Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” said Rubio, who co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
“The State Department has indicated that it is leading an interagency effort within the Administration to develop policy options in response to this brutal campaign of repression. The time for action is now.”
Since April 2017, authorities have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of re-education camps throughout the XUAR.
These extrajudicial detentions have accompanied intrusive security measures that include ramped up surveillance techniques and the collection of DNA, as well as policies aimed at diluting ethnic identity, such as controls over the right to worship, use of language, and even personal appearance.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the chairman of the XUAR government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those held in the camps are detained against their will, are subjected to political indoctrination and rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities. The atmosphere is more like a prison than any kind of school, multiple sources say.
Rubio and immediate past CECC co-chair U.S. Representative Chris Smith recently called the situation in the XUAR “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
The “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act” would require the Director of National Intelligence to issue a report in coordination with the State Department on the security threat posed by China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs, as well as a list of Chinese companies involved in the construction and the operation of re-education camps in the XUAR.
It also calls for the establishment of a new position at the State Department that would oversee developments in the region while the crackdown persists.
Additionally, the FBI would be required to provide information to and protect U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents from Chinese government harassment and intimidation on American soil.
The act specifically mentioned efforts to intimidate RFA employees, after China detained close relatives of several of RFA’s Uyghur Service reporters in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the XUAR, drawing condemnation from rights groups and media watchdogs.
It urged “high-level U.S. engagement” on the issue, as well as the application of travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials who are responsible for the policies in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Bob Menendez said in a statement that the proposed legislation is an acknowledgement that the U.S. has entered a new era of strategic competition with China, and highlights the need to ensure those targeted by China’s repressive policies in the region don’t get left behind.
“The Trump administration needs to finally develop a coherent strategy for China that reflects our nation’s values, especially given the horrific and ongoing human rights abuses committed against China’s Uighur Minority,” Menendez said.
A complimentary bill—HR 649—was proposed Thursday by U.S. Representatives Chris Smith of New Jersey and Tom Suozzi of New York, who warned in a statement that the XUAR has “become nothing short of a police state” and urged fellow lawmakers to “take a stand against this violation of human rights and show the Chinese government that this is unacceptable.”
Thursday marked the second time legislation aimed at holding China accountable for its treatment of the Uyghurs was proposed, following the announcement of a similar act in November, which was not taken up by the Senate before the end of the congressional session.
At the time, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai threatened retaliation if Washington sanctions Beijing over human rights abuses in the XUAR, telling Reuters news agency in an interview that China is working to “re-educate” terrorists and should not be punished for what he suggested is a more humane approach to counter-terrorism.
It is unclear when the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act” or its twin in the House of Representatives might be put to a vote, but the legislation could be prioritized in light of a general frustration with Beijing in Washington over an ongoing trade dispute, jockeying for geopolitical dominance, and allegations of corporate espionage.
Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project exile group, expressed gratitude to the lawmakers for “showing what leadership looks like in the face of crimes against humanity being committed against China’s Turkic Muslims.”
“This bipartisan legislation will not only shed more light on one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in East Turkestan, but also hold those rights abusers in China accountable,” he said in an interview with RFA, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.
“I call on other liberal democracies to put in place similar legislative mandates to protect the Uyghur people, who are facing an existential threat in China. I also urge the other members of Congress to support this bill within this legislative session.”