On March 22nd, Britain sanctioned four Chinese officials and a state security body regarding human rights abuses against the Uyghur community in Xinjiang. The sanctions come as part of a widespread effort by Western powers to pressure Beijing into compliance. According to Reuters, the United States declared new sanctions on two officials involved in the Xinjiang conflict earlier that day, and the European Union also imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials, including a security director. The penalties from the U.S. come just days after a heated interaction between China and the Biden administration in Alaska, says the New York Times.
Britain and the European Union placed sanctions on the same four officials, Reuters reports: “Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.” All four recipients will be subject to asset freezes. The U.S. placed penalties on just Wang Junzheng and Chen Mingguo under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the American executive branch to punish foreign officials for human rights abuses. American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says the joint penalties seek both to “advance respect for human rights” and “end repressive practices against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
Yang Xiaoguang, China’s charge d’affaires at the London embassy, calls the move against China a disappointing and “totally wrong decision,” claiming “the accusation against us in Xinjiang is totally groundless, and not based on facts.”
China rejects all accusations of abuse, arguing the detainment camps that U.N. rights experts suggest hold one million Muslims “provide vocational training” and “are needed to fight extremism,” Reuters reports. In reality, the camps seek to inspire loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and degrade adherence to Islam. Britain, the European Union, and other powers have regularly criticized the torture, forced labor, and sterilizations of Muslim Uyghurs as this inhumane treatment persists on an “industrial scale.” “The evidence of widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang cannot be ignored,” warns Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has persisted for years. China has detained some 800,000 to 2,000,000 Uyghurs, along with Kazakhs and Uzbeks, since April 2017. Even the Uyghurs living outside of the camps suffer inhumane crackdowns by Chinese authorities, says the Council on Foreign Relations (C.F.R.). Those forced into detainment camps are convicted on unjust claims, the C.F.R. says, such as attending mosque services, having more than three children, or travelling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China has deemed “sensitive.” Chinese authorities have criminalized Uyghurs for being Muslim and labelled them extremists for simply following their religious beliefs.
The Chinese government thus views the Muslim detainment camps as an avenue to eliminate extremist “threats” to “China’s territorial integrity, government, and population,” the C.F.R. says. Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo implemented detention on a large scale after he moved to the region in 2016. (Quanguo has an extensive history with intensifying security in Tibet, including increasing police checkpoints and state control over Buddhist monasteries.) Also, in a series of secret 2014 speeches that became public in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed concern over the “toxicity of religious extremism” and advocated for using “dictatorship” to mitigate supposed Islamic extremism. While he did not explicitly demand arbitrary detention, Xi made the persistent oppression and abuse of Uyghur Muslims possible.
When initial accusations of detainment camps emerged, Chinese officials denied their existence altogether. When it became clear that the camps did exist in 2018, China began arguing that they were “vocational education and training programs.” In 2019, the C.F.R. reports, Xinjiang’s governor Shohrat Zakir claimed all detainees had “graduated” and those still housed in the camps were voluntary residents.
While China maintains that the camps’ only purposes are to teach Mandarin, Chinese laws, and vocational skills, and to mitigate threats of terrorism, the government’s motives are more corrupt than it lets on. Xinjiang is a crucial piece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an expansive development project throughout Asia and Europe. As the region is home to China’s largest sources of coal and natural gas, the government is especially concerned with keeping the region’s population in check. Majority Han Chinese disproportionately benefit from Xinjiang’s economic riches, while Uyghurs face continuous marginalization. In addition, many Uyghurs who were detained have been coerced into factory work linked to eighty-three global brands. This forced labor is an integral element of China’s textile and apparel manufacturing.
According to the C.F.R., the exact conditions of the hundreds of camps in Xinjiang remain unclear. Detainees who have fled report harsh and prison-like conditions, with cameras and microphones monitoring every move. Some have reported forced sleep deprivation and torture during interrogations, and many women have come forward with experiences of sexual assault and rape. The detention facilities also tear apart families; children whose parents are held captive are forced into state-run orphanages.
Much of the world has expressed negative sentiments about China’s human rights violations against the Uyghurs. Several world leaders have even classified the violations as a genocide. The European Union, human rights organizations, and many other countries have called for China to authorize religious freedom and cease its genocidal oppression. The United States blacklisted over 25 Chinese companies connected to mistreatment in the region and signed legislation ensuring that American businesses and individuals selling to Xinjiang do not supply any inhumane activities, the Council on Foreign Relations says. Executive Director of the Uyghur Humans Rights Project Omer Kanat praised the organized response, saying, “[U]nprecedented cooperation between governments like this is how genocide will be brought to an end.” A foreign response to human rights abuses in Xinjiang has finally begun, and progressive action will hopefully continue to promote peace in the region.
However, efforts to assist the suffering Uyghur population in Xinjiang have been largely unsuccessful. While some countries have worked to promote ethical goods production amidst a corrupt system, China’s trading partners continue to value economic transactions over human life. The European Union has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and publicly denounced conditions in Xinjiang, the C.F.R. says, but is still moving forward in an investment agreement with China that does not acknowledge any human rights violations related to forced labor. China’s other trading partners have been astoundingly silent on the matter. Rather than addressing the blatant crisis of human suffering at hand, many countries have prioritized their partnerships with the economic powerhouse.
Another issue is a lack of support from Muslim-majority countries. In July 2019, a group of mainly European countries drafted a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the way China has treated its Uyghur population. Meanwhile, several dozen nations, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, signed a separate letter congratulating China’s “remarkable achievements” and “counterterrorism” initiatives, the C.F.R. says. Rather than back fellow Muslim groups in China, these Muslim-majority countries ranked economic gain and the financial benefits of trade with China above any moral obligations to the Uyghurs.
The European Union and other nations must act on the unethical situation in Xinjiang with both haste and aggression. The new sanctions imposed by Britain, the United States, and the European Union are a step in the right direction, but this situation is dire and requires a more targeted approach. As Executive Director Kanat emphasized, there must be an organized strategy from many different allies. A swift end to the suffering in Xinjiang requires support from both powerful nations and Muslim-majority regions.
Trade relations should not supersede the rights of a people undergoing religious persecution. Uyghurs have been victims of human rights abuses for years. These people must receive recognition and justice.
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