“China has no genocide, China has no genocide, China has no genocide,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed at a press conference Jan. 28, pushing back against America’s bipartisan consensus that there is, in fact, a genocide. The Chinese Communist Party’s litany of denial and shocking self-justification only intensified after the determination by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Jan 19 that the government of China is carrying out a genocide against Uighurs and other Turkic groups in the Xinjiang autonomous territory.
Too often, Western countries opt for human rights dialogue in private to avoid upsetting powerful countries like China.
The recent designation, while a step in the right direction, is far from enough. As was Joe Biden calling the atrocities against my people a genocide during his presidential campaign. While it was encouraging to see President Joe Biden on Wednesday, in his first call to Chinese President Xi Jinping raise the issue of the abuses that are happening to my people, his administration must now combine words with decisive action.
U.S. recognition of the genocide against Uighurs was long overdue. The Uighur human rights crisis started in early 2016 and escalated during President Donald Trump’s tenure. The Chinese Communist Party’s current leadership has built the largest concentration and prison camps since World War II and held millions of innocent Uighurs and other Turkic ethnic groups there based simply on their ethnic identity, religion or age. Traveling to a foreign country can get someone sent to these camps, as happened to my brother Ekpar Asat, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist returning to China from a prestigious State Department program.
New reports suggest that the camps are being turned into prisons in which large groups of innocent people can be held indefinitely. Many camps contain factories run by enslaved detainees, while other Uighurs are bused to factories across China. From Covid-19 protective masks to beauty products, our everyday objects are made using forced labor. The integration into the global market of raw materials, especially cotton picked and processed by Uighurs, taints supply chains and risks implicating ordinary and unassuming people in crimes against humanity. Yet, forced labor is just one dimension of the Uighur persecution.
At the core of its genocidal campaign, the Chinese Communist Party is forcibly sterilizing women to prevent the perpetuation of the Uighur people. When their husbands are taken away, the party arranges for Han men to monitor women in their own beds, which inevitably leads to sexual abuse. A report documenting mass rape at these barbaric camps earlier this month prompted the U.S. and the U.K. governments to issue strong condemnations. At least a half million children are being held in state orphanage centers, encircled with barbed wire instead of their parents’ embrace.
Given the magnitude of the Chinese government’s crimes, which clearly meet the U.N. definition of genocide, the U.S. government was woefully delinquent in making its atrocity determination. The lack of global U.S. leadership and Trump’s willingness to overlook rights abuses in China have only emboldened the Chinese Communist Party to openly and successfully question the notion of what it terms “so-called universal human rights.” Thus, the last-minute determination by Pompeo is shrouded in ambivalence.
Thankfully, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken has affirmed the State Department’s designation of genocide in Xinjiang. In laying out his China policy, he said, “We have to start by approaching China from a position of strength,” and stressed the role of America as a world leader. National security adviser Jake Sullivan recently affirmed Blinken’s position, saying the U.S. must be “prepared to act, as well to impose costs, for what China is doing in Xinjiang.”
To turn this principle into action, the first step should be for the Biden administration to press for prisoners like my brother Ekpar to be able to return to their families abroad — in his case, to America. Second, the new U.S. Congress must swiftly pass the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which will take slave-made goods off the American market and ensure that no Americans are complicit in the cruelty that produced them. Third, with Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Games, the U.S. can demonstrate leadership by boycotting the Olympics in a country while it’s committing a genocide.
The Biden administration must also deploy every tool at its disposal, including sanctions against all degrees of perpetrators as provided for under the Magnitsky Sanctions, to make those responsible for genocide face serious consequences. The sanctions will keep the wrongdoers from benefiting from the U.S. financial market and thereby deter them from aiding and abetting genocide. To that end, the Biden administration should work with allies to adopt similar sanctions mechanisms to jointly confront China.
But the effort must go beyond secure and established allies to empower developing countries to stand up to China’s coercive foreign policy, as well. For far too long, rising democracies facing economic hardships have accepted the Chinese Communist Party’s duplicitous generosity, accepting necessary aid and providing, in return, diplomatic complicity for genocide by defending China’s actions. Many countries pursued the immediate material benefit of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — the world’s most ambitious infrastructure project, often viewed as a state-backed campaign for global dominance — in disregard of the long-term integrity of their own governmental systems.
Human rights must be a part of global public diplomacy and discourse so that all countries are obliged to speak out. Too often, Western countries opt for human rights dialogue in private to avoid upsetting powerful countries like China. The world must accept that if the cost of stopping the destruction of an entire people is short-term prosperity, it is a sacrifice that must gladly be made.
America’s particular strength lies in being a champion for what ought to be universal values: the respect for the rule of law and human rights, trust in democracy and pursuit of a just society. America’s own history in achieving these ideals is hugely imperfect, but in the face of its own failings, it has not abandoned and will not abandon the principles themselves. Confronting China on genocide would allow the Biden administration to re-establish America’s position as a credible and principled defender of human rights in a world that needs one more than ever.