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US lawmakers demand sanctions on China over rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Melon seller in Kashgar, Xinjiang, West China. 2008. (ChiralJon/Flickr)
April 07, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A group of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday urged the Trump administration to impose sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), saying Washington has failed to act strongly enough.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the bipartisan group of lawmakers said they were “disappointed with the Administration’s failure so far to impose any sanctions related to the ongoing systemic and egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang.”

“While the strong rhetoric condemning the Chinese government’s actions in the XUAR from Vice President Pence and others is certainly welcomed, words alone are not enough.”

The lawmakers—led by Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, and Representatives James P. McGovern and Chris Smith—called for the swift imposition of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on XUAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other Chinese officials “complicit in gross human rights abuses” against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.

The Global Magnitsky Act is based on an earlier U.S. measure created to address human rights abuses by the Putin regime in Russia.

They also called on the Commerce Department to strengthen export controls to ensure U.S. companies are not assisting the Chinese government in creating civilian surveillance or predictive policing systems used by authorities in the XUAR.

The U.S. should establish strengthened disclosure requirements to alert American investors about the presence of Chinese enterprises that pose national security dangers or are complicit in human rights abuses, in the U.S. capital markets, they said.

“Americans would likely be very troubled, if not outraged, to learn that their retirement and other investment dollars are funding Chinese companies with links to the Chinese government’s security apparatus and malevolent behavior—links that represent material, asymmetric risks to corporate reputation and share value,” the letter read.

Beginning in April 2017, Chen established a network of political “re-education camps” in the XUAR that have since held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas.

Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.

China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

Administration actions

In Wednesday’s letter, the lawmakers noted that despite the Chinese government’s “obfuscations and slanderous attacks on critics of its abusive policies,” the international community is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s treatment of its minority groups in the XUAR, which they said include human rights abuses that may constitute crimes against humanity.

“We are disappointed with the Administration’s failure so far to impose any sanctions related to the ongoing systemic and egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” the letter said.

“While the strong rhetoric condemning the Chinese government’s actions in the XUAR from Vice President Pence and others is certainly welcomed, words alone are not enough.”

The lawmakers requested details of U.S. efforts to address rights abuses in the XUAR, a list of visits requested by U.S. officials to the region and requests to investigate the camps, and a description of diplomatic efforts to account for detained U.S. legal residents and family members of U.S. citizens, as well as the names of any American companies that have sold technology to Chinese firms operating in the region.

They also called for an outline of what specific steps are being taken by the U.S. government to prevent the Chinese government from using American-made goods and services to perpetrate rights abuses in the XUAR, what diplomatic engagement the State Department has undertaken with like-minded partners on the issue, and what types of actions are planned at the United Nations to raise the profile of the crisis.

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.

Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, last week said people “haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s” and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs “one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”

In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are “at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million” Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.