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‘The tools are available to the administration’ to press China on Uyghurs: US Religious Freedom Envoy

Sam Brownback, then governor of Kansas, speaking at the American Conservative Union's 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23, 2017 in National Harbor, Md. (Michael Brochstein/Zuma Press/TNS)
June 27, 2020

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

Sam Brownback is a lawyer, former United States Senator and former governor of the state of Kansas who has served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom since February 2018.

He spoke with RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff on June. 24 about U.S. President Donald Trump’s enactment last week of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR—home to a three-year-old program of internment camps holding as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims.

Amid growing calls for Trump to sanction Chinese officials deemed responsible for policies of persecution in the region under the new law, Brownback said the administration will continue to review additional actions that could be used to hold Beijing accountable for the situation there. He also highlighted the need for other governments—particularly of Muslim majority nations—to follow Washington’s lead and pressure Beijing over the camps, but noted that simply closing the facilities will not be enough, as authorities have created a police state in the XUAR that will preclude faith-based communities from participating in the economy and society.

RFA: The Uyghur people are wondering, now that this act has become legislation, what is next?

Brownback: I think what’s next, really, is for us and the world community to continue to have a heightened focus on Xinjiang pointing this out to China, and more countries, along with the United States, taking direct actions at China until they lift this human rights blight that they’ve done on the Uyghur people. This is one of the most incredible things going on in our today—a million Muslims locked up in detention camps in a major country today, simply for being Muslim. It really is an unthinkable thing to have happened in any era, but particularly in 2020 and by a nation as large and influential as China.

China has been such a bully to a number of nations to push them not to address, but increasingly more countries have been willing to step up and speak about it and increasingly, I think, they’ll start to take more and more actions—as the U.S. will continue to do by reviewing what other things we can do in our portfolio. That’s what this act requires—is the U.S. government to really look and see what other things that we can do to address this horrendous human rights situation.

One of the biggest things, honestly, that we need to do is to get this information out around the world, particularly in the countries where Islam is … practiced by the majority of the population. We need those nations to step up and condemn the abuse of people of the Muslim faith by the Chinese Communist Party. It is unthinkable that it is happening. It is also unfortunately, I think, a prelude to more persecution that would happen, and the persecution may be in the form of high-tech surveillance and limitations on people’s participation in the economy and the society.

RFA: Do you see any Muslim majority nations that are also willing to raise their concerns with China?

Brownback: Turkey has spoken about this. There have been several other countries that have as well. China has been on a very aggressive public relations campaign in Islamic countries to try to try to put a different face on these internment camps, calling them vocational training, but we have eyewitness testimony from people who have been in these places about their forced abduction, their forced retention, their inability to practice their faith, their requirements not to use common Muslim names like Mohammed on their children, the destruction of graveyards and places of worship. So, you can’t put a good face on this. This is religious persecution intentionally practiced by the Chinese government, trying to really prevent an entire population of people from practicing their faith.

RFA: Do you think sanctions [under the new law] are coming any time soon?

Brownback: It would be my hope, number one, that China would stop the persecution. That it would act like a large global nation and treat human rights and religious freedom as core principles. But they do not, unfortunately. China remains a Country of Particular Concern on our Religious Freedom Watchlist and that’s the category of the countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom. And then they also continue to be an enabler of human rights abuses by other countries—not standing up for human rights and certainly not standing up for religious freedom. They persecute, unfortunately, Muslims, but also the Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Falun Gong—virtually any faith participation in China, the participants are persecuted.

We do not preview sanctions. When the steps are taken, they are announced, but we don’t project or preview when things like that would happen.

Bipartisan support

RFA: Does the Policy Act provide you tools to further press for the religious freedom of the Uyghur people as an ambassador for international religious freedom?

Brownback: The primary, I think, focus of the act is to focus the administration on these horrific abuses that are taking place. And that’s what it’s doing. The tools are, by and large, available to the administration. There are certain reporting requirements that are new in the bill for the administration and the intelligence community to provide to the Congress, which those will be done.

But I think the real value here, too, is to express how clear and strong Congress feels on this. There was one dissenting vote in the House. It passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. This is a clear statement by the Congress that this is a bipartisan topic about which there is deep concern.

RFA: With the UHRPA signed into law, do you think this will help pressure China to shut down the camps and release Uyghur detainees?

Brownback: Well, my hope is that it will pressure the Chinese government to take positive actions to shut down the camps. But I would note that just shutting down the camps is insufficient. They’ve now created this police state—Big Brother—over the population centers in Xinjiang with cameras and artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems. To make a police state even in areas where people are no longer incarcerated, they are effectively limited in how they can live.

And I’ve played this up to many people. I believe this is really the future of oppression. There will be these sorts of Big Brother systems where individuals, if they want to participate in their faith, they will not be able to participate in the economy or society of their land. And that’s what the Chinese have created in Xinjiang, what the Communists have done to the Uyghur and [wider] Muslim population in that region. So even if the camps are shut down, the police state remains and the lack of ability for the people to even practice their religion is obvious and it’s the cutting edge technology how this is likely to be done in the future in China and other authoritarian countries unless the world pushes back and stops this from happening.