It’s become accepted Washington doctrine that, when it comes to foreign policy, the splits between the parties (and within them) are too wide to bridge. But there’s one issue bringing everyone together, even in this era of deep political and ideological discord: China’s horrific treatment of its Uighur Muslim population and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Republicans and Democrats, isolationists and internationalists, the Trump administration and Congress, even Christians and Muslims, all agree: This is a catastrophe the United States can no longer ignore. This rare consensus, made possible only due to the mind-boggling cruelty and injustice the Chinese government is perpetrating on millions of its own people, has finally materialized in words — and will hopefully soon translate to action.
When releasing the State Department’s annual human rights reports Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that China “is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.” Ambassador Michael Kozak, who heads the bureau that drafted the reports, compared China’s internment of possibly more than 2 million people in Xinjiang province to Nazi concentration camps.
“You haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” he said. The Chinese government “is trying to basically erase [Muslim minorities’] culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”
The State Department’s report on China goes into excruciating detail. Chinese authorities are conducting mass arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, rape, compulsory worship of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, and more. They especially target activists, artists, musicians, teachers, lawyers and family members of U.S. citizens, in clear and egregious violation of both Chinese and international law.
Any Uighur family not in the camps is probably being monitored 24/7 by one of the 1.1 million “civil servants” Beijing has sent to live with them and report anything suspicious, religious or disloyal back to the party. Thousands of children of interned parents are being shipped off to orphanages. The Chinese government is pressuring Uighurs around the world to give up their DNA and other private information under the threat that their families will vanish.
For those watching the issue closely, much of this was already known. But what’s new is that the Trump administration is joining Congress, at least rhetorically, in confronting Beijing publicly on its repression, its lies and its overall campaign to snuff out religious and ethnic identity inside China. “The Chinese government is at war with faith. It is a war they will not win,” Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in Hong Kong last week.
In Congress, the Uighur issue has brought together a broad and unlikely alliance of lawmakers. Just look at the list of 39 co-sponsors of the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which is moving through the House now. The bill’s leader , Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), and co-sponsor Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), could not be further apart on Israel, but they are both appalled by China’s persecution of Uighurs. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) are at war over the Russia investigation, but they agree on this.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a sponsor, which means the bill is likely to pass the House. The Senate version, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has 25 co-sponsors, including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). It’s a bipartisan, bicameral, and ideologically and ethnically diverse coalition forged by outrage at Beijing and the determination not to turn a blind eye.
The Chinese government is certainly feeling the pressure, illustrated by the fact that its explanation for the camps keeps evolving. At first, the authorities denied their existence. Then, they were described as “re-education centers” for extremists. Now, they are “boarding schools.” The fact that the story changes so often lays bare that officials are lying.
Beijing could be forgiven for not believing that the United States is serious. The Trump administration hasn’t taken any of the punitive actions Congress is demanding, such as sanctioning Chinese officials under the Magnitsky act or restricting the export of technologies used for repression. Officials tell me that Trump hasn’t wanted to complicate ongoing trade negotiations with Beijing or his North Korea diplomacy, which depend on Xi’s cooperation.
But the repression is only getting worse, and now China is exporting it. Beijing is retaliating against Turkey for speaking out about the Uighurs. Under Chinese pressure, the government of Kazakhstan this week arrested the leader of a group that has been exposing the camps. China can bully smaller countries, but not the United States. Despite America’s recent shortcomings, the world still looks to us to lead on human rights. If we lead, like-minded nations will follow.
The Uighur issue is just one part of a greater awakening and consensus in Washington and other Western capitals about the threat of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi, which is more internally repressive and externally aggressive every day. But calling out the problem is not enough; now the world must act.