U.S. Enacts New Law Condemning China’s Treatment of Uyghur and Other Muslims

Surveillance cameras in China's Xinjiang region, home to millions of Uyghur and other Muslims.

Surveillance cameras in China's Xinjiang region, home to millions of Uyghur and other Muslims.

June 18, 2020

President Donald Trump signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on June 17, a measure aimed at addressing “gross violations of human rights” in the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur and other Muslims.

Passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the legislation details a process for the president to impose sanctions on people deemed responsible for abuses of Uyghur and other Muslims in China’s tightly-controlled Xinjiang region, mandates congressional reports from multiple U.S. government entities on alleged violations of human rights in Xinjiang, and says that official U.S. policy towards China “should be explicitly linked” to the status of the situation there.

The measure’s passage was hailed by the advocacy group the Uyghur Human Rights Project as a “historic first.” Trump signed it into law on the same day The Wall Street Journal published an essay in which his former national security adviser, John Bolton, claimed that the president had expressed approval of China’s construction of detention camps for Uyghur Muslims to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump denied that characterization to the Journal, saying it was not true, describing Bolton as “a liar,” and pointing to his signing of the new law.

As FRONTLINE has reported, the Chinese government’s detention of an estimated two million Uyghur and other Muslims without trial over the past three years has been described as the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust. In the February documentary China Undercover, Muslims who were held in China’s detention camps spoke out about their experiences.

Gulzira, a Kazakh Muslim, recalled being surrounded by bars and mesh wire, cameras everywhere, and brutal treatment. Twice, Gulzira said, she was made to sit on a hard chair for 24 hours. She went to the bathroom where she sat. And “if you exceeded two minutes in the toilet, they hit our heads with an electric prod,” she said.

The documentary also investigated the Chinese government’s testing and deployment of sophisticated surveillance and artificial intelligence technology on Uyghurs and the general Muslim population in Xinjiang.

“Uyghurs are not considered human by the Chinese government,” an engineer who worked on surveillance technology being developed in Xinjiang told FRONTLINE in China Undercover. “They are like mice being experimented on for research purposes.”

Undercover footage in the documentary showed how extensive China’s surveillance of Muslims had become — revealing houses marked with digital barcodes, cameras on almost every street, and tech companies that are working with the government on facial recognition technology that identifies behavior the government considers threatening.

Under the new law, the U.S. director of national intelligence is required to report on the development of such surveillance efforts, “including technology related to predictive policing and large-scale data collection and analysis,” and its risks for the United States.

For an in-depth investigation of the Chinese government’s detention and surveillance of Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang, watch China Undercover in full:

China said it has released everyone being detained in what it called its “vocational education and training centers,” and that “the security situation in Xinjiang has been greatly improved,” with “more effective protection of the freedom of religious belief and human rights of Uyghur Muslims.”

But Chinese technology companies have been exporting their surveillance technology to other countries across the world, and family members of people held in China’s detention camps said they were still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones.

“Of course, we miss her,” Sadyrzhan, an Uyghur Muslim in Kazakhstan whose wife disappeared after visiting her parents in Xinjiang, said in the documentary. “Our hearts are burning.”

China’s government on June 18 condemned the signing of the new U.S. law, with a foreign ministry spokesperson saying it “seeks to stigmatize Xinjiang’s measures against terrorism, separatism and radicalization.” The spokesperson said that “Xinjiang affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference,” and that the government’s efforts in Xinjiang had successfully combated the threat of violent extremism.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



More Stories

Kherson After Liberation: Co-producer of ‘Putin’s Attack on Ukraine’ Documentary Describes Visit
A Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist who was on one of the first trains traveling to the newly liberated city talks to FRONTLINE about the damage he saw in Kherson after eight months of Russian occupation.
November 29, 2022
As Donald Trump Announces His 2024 Run, a Look Back at His Presidency and Impact
FRONTLINE has built a unique public record, in documentary format, of the former president’s impact on American life, politics and democracy — and his previous battles with a special counsel and the Department of Justice.
November 16, 2022
How American Politics Reached This Fraught Moment: 12 Documentaries to Watch Ahead of the Midterms
As a divided America prepares to vote and fears of political violence continue, these FRONTLINE documentaries show how U.S. politics reached this moment.
November 4, 2022
How Russian Soldiers Ran a "Cleansing" Operation in Bucha
"I’ve already killed so many civilians,” a Russian soldier told his wife from Bucha, Ukraine. The Associated Press and FRONTLINE obtained hundreds of hours of CCTV footage and intercepts of audio calls by Russian soldiers that show for the first time what a Russian "cleansing" operation looked like.
November 3, 2022