How the U.S. Has Reacted to China’s Treatment of Uyghurs
In 2020, the U.S. has reacted with legislation and sanctions to China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang, pictured above. A source who traveled to Xinjiang for FRONTLINE said, "I felt police were everywhere."
UPDATE: On Jan. 19, 2021, the outgoing Trump administration’s State Department said that China’s government was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, “I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state.”
Over the last three years, China’s mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang has gradually come into sharper relief — with mounting evidence of a vast network of detention camps, testimony from survivors and allegations of forced labor.
As FRONTLINE reported in China Undercover, a documentary that first aired in April 2020, the government has also been using artificial intelligence surveillance technology to track and monitor Muslim minorities going about their daily lives in Xinjiang. An engineer who worked on the system told FRONTLINE that facial recognition could label someone as “normal,” “of concern” or “dangerous,” potentially leading to their arrest.
New reports suggest China is expanding and entrenching a system for mass detention, even as government officials have publicly said almost all people were released from the camps. Recent investigations also indicate the government has forced birth control, sterilization and abortions on women in Xinjiang, with the threat of detention if they don’t comply. Birth rates in Xinjiang fell 24% last year, according to government statistics, and the Associated Press noted that birth rates in Hotan and Kashgar — areas with a Uyghur-majority population — plunged more than 60% from 2015 to 2018.
China maintains that the camps provide “vocational education and training” and are part of an effort to combat extremism and terrorism. It dismisses reporting of its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as “farce” or “fake news.”
Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended his government’s policy toward Xinjiang as “totally correct,” saying, “it must be held to for the long term,” according to a summary issued by the state-run news agency Xinhua, as quoted by The New York Times. “Viewed overall, Xinjiang is enjoying a favorable setting of social stability with the people living in peace and contentment,” Xi said.
Still, as reports of the deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang have accumulated, U.S. lawmakers have responded this year with growing criticism, legislation and sanctions targeting China.
Labeling China’s Actions as ‘Genocide’
Most recently, in October, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a resolution stating that the “atrocities” committed by China against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang constitute genocide. It calls on the Chinese government to release people from detention camps and forced labor programs, and urges other countries to join the U.S. in compelling China to take those actions.
Previously, in July, lawmakers from both parties had written a letter calling on the Trump administration to “make an official determination” whether the Chinese government was perpetrating genocide.
Politico, which reported in August that the White House was weighing whether to accuse China of genocide, noted that such a declaration might “compel some sort of American intervention — though not necessarily the military kind.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang “genocide,” and a campaign spokesman said in a statement in August that Biden “stands against it in the strongest terms.”
Legislation on Forced Labor
The U.S. House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation this fall taking aim at the alleged use of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.
The first, which passed on Sept. 22 with an overwhelming majority, aims to prevent items produced using forced labor in Xinjiang from entering the U.S. Examples of products that were reportedly made with forced labor ranged from tea and handicrafts to electronics and textiles, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The bill also calls on the president to compile lists of and impose sanctions on entities and people — including Chinese government officials — who knowingly facilitate forced labor in Xinjiang or try to get around the ban on imports made by forced labor. After its passage in the House, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where it remains.
The second bill, which passed on Sept. 30 — roughly along party lines, with more Democrats voting in favor — would require public companies listed in the U.S. to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission any goods or materials that originated from Xinjiang, as well as any links to forced labor camps and profits related to the items. Republicans who opposed the bill said that while they agreed on the premise of making sure American companies are not complicit in forced labor, the bill might harm U.S. businesses. The bill was sent to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, where it remains.
The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 & Sanctions
In June, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump, after being passed by both the House and the Senate. The law lays out a process through which the president would compile a list of people and entities connected to human rights abuses, such as torture and detention without charges, in Xinjiang and impose financial and travel sanctions on them. The law also calls for the U.S. secretary of state to submit reports on human rights abuses in Xinjiang to Congressional committees.
Less than a month after the act became law, the U.S. State Department and Treasury announced sanctions on Chinese officials — including Chen Quanguo, party secretary of Xinjiang, and Zhu Hailun, a former deputy secretary of the region, who were described in the text of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act as bearing “direct responsibility for gross human rights violations.”
While the sanctions were largely symbolic, they were welcomed by Uyghur rights groups.