Even when President Donald Trump finally manages to do the right thing, it’s rarely for the right reasons. Such was the case Wednesday, when he signed a law that allows for sanctioning as human rights violators Chinese officials responsible for running camps imprisoning up to 1 million Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province of western China.
Trump’s been so inconsistent on what should be a core tenet of American foreign policy — opposition to large-scale internment of a minority population — that there’s some truth to claims from Beijing that Trump’s move this week was a hypocritical one motivated by a desire to weaponize the issue against China amid high-stakes trade negotiations. He almost certainly didn’t take this long-overdue step in support of the Uighurs because he genuinely cares about human rights, but as a way to dig at China with relations at their current low.
There’s some truth to claims from Beijing that Trump’s move this week was a hypocritical one motivated by a desire to weaponize the issue against China.
After all, according to a forthcoming book by former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, excerpts of which were leaked to the press earlier in the week, Trump expressed support for the idea of the internment camps when Chinese President Xi Jinping explained in a private 2019 G20 meeting how they were his solution to combat unrest in the Uighur population.
This stance is actually somewhat consistent for Trump, who has been forthright in his aggressive disregard for human rights, particularly those of Muslims. Trump has also used spurious security concerns to back up his discriminatory policies. All of which makes it that much more important to understand why Xi’s justifications are so erroneous and his policy so urgently in need of vociferous, unified American opposition.
Xinjiang is the home of the Uighurs, a Turkic people who once ruled their own empire. As is the case with many of the areas bordering on China, control has been a matter of dispute, tension and even outright violence. China’s Qing Dynasty completed its conquest of Xinjiang in the 18th century, though centuries of revolt followed. Ever since the Chinese Revolution and the installation of the Communist Party government in 1949, however, the land has been controlled by the central Beijing government.
Over the decades, Uighur separatist violence and Chinese repression have rocked the region. In addition to exerting military force, Beijing has encouraged the country’s dominant Han Chinese ethnic group to move to Xinjiang and populate it to diminish Uighur independence claims.
But the Communist Party has also given signs of accepting the cultural diversity of its population during its rule. It officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities, 10 of which practice Islam. It has made arrangements for government-approved Muslim clerics and grudgingly tolerated small-scale religious practice — though it remained unacceptable among party members themselves.
When I taught in the mid-2010s in a university in Gansu, another northern province adjacent to Xinjiang, the local religion and customs were on a full, peaceful display. The Muslim Hui ethnicity lived amid minaret-laden mosques, wearing Islamic clothing such as white caps for men and head scarves for women and eating cuisine adapted to the requirement of Halal regulations — such as spicy Lanzhou beef-noodle soup in place of pork dishes.
The Hui lived alongside the Han Chinese majority as well as other minorities — Mongols, Tibetans, Kazakhs — giving the mountainous region its diverse character.
But the government now sees that diversity as a problem to be erased. A massive crackdown in northwestern Xinjiang has led to a broader campaign to erase Muslim cultural institutions across China.
New repressive measures — first employed just against Uighurs in Xinjiang, but more recently becoming more widespread — came in response to a wave of terror attacks by Uighur separatists in 2013 and 2014, including a shocking knife attack at the train station of a major southwestern city that left 31 dead, the bombing of a vegetable market in the capital of Xinjiang province that killed 39 and a vehicular suicide attack at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing.
Former detainees report hours of chanting praise for the Communist Party and being monitored by 24/7 surveillance systems. Some allege worse treatment, including forced labor, rape and torture.
Beijing authorities feared that the Uighur population had been radicalized by the global spread of Islamic extremism. The Chinese government initially resorted to armed checkpoints and heavy-handed regulations. The leading moderate critic of China’s Xinjiang policy, Ilham Tohti, was imprisoned for life in 2014.
But documents leaked from the Chinese Communist Party to The New York Times in 2019 reveal that soon after Xi came to power in 2013, he concluded that more coercive measures were needed — and should be adopted with “absolutely no mercy.” The new strategy: Round up everyone displaying cultural signifiers that hinted they might be susceptible to radicalization.
Starting in 2017, a network of informants, mass surveillance footage and Big Data-style techniques were used to identify Uighurs “infected by unhealthy thoughts” with such incriminating evidence as having a long beard, studying Arabic, attending a religious service or browsing an article critical of the Chinese government. For a good measure, cultural artifacts such as veils and long beards were outright banned.
The worst response, though, was the wide-scale internment of Uighurs. In Xinjiang, locals were arrested indiscriminately simply to fulfill quotas requiring detention of a certain percentage of the population.
While curbing violence in and emanating from Xinjiang is undoubtedly important, forcing 1 out of every 10 Uighurs in Xinjiang into concentration camps is a massive human rights violation and by no means a proportionate response. For every prospective militant theoretically cowed by the reeducation camps, thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens have been grossly mistreated by their own government.
Indeed, so many local officials thought the camps were excessive that more than 12,000 were investigated by the party under suspicion of undermining the internment program.
The claim that Chinese policy is based on combating extremism and terrorism is undermined by the fact that this cultural purification is gradually being expanded to populations without the tensions experienced in Xinjiang.
Authorities in several provinces recently made it more difficult to know whether food met Halal standards in order to “curb religious extremism.” Mosques in Ningxia have been ordered to remodel with Chinese-style architecture or face demolition. Some in other provinces have been shut down completely. And more than 100 Uighur graveyards have been destroyed even though their inhabitants presumably caused no threat whatsoever.
Collectively, these decisions suggest a broad policy decision has been taken to try to assimilate or “Sinicize” minorities into Han Chinese culture and abandon the Communist Party’s previous multicultural recognition. Xi even announced in 2019 it was scaling back affirmative action policies and local tax incentives for minorities, in an apparent bid to remove any incentive to identify as a minority.
These decisions suggest a broad policy decision has been taken to try to assimilate or “Sinicize” minorities into Han Chinese culture.
I think back to the ambitious and idealistic students I knew while I was a teacher in China. Surely those who were of minority descent believed they and their culture had a place in Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of a harmonious and prosperous country.
Sadly, the unique heritage of many Chinese minorities is now being treated as an unwelcome aberration to be “normalized” — an erasure of cultural diversity and history that would come at the expense of all of China’s citizens.
The United States is far from done with reckoning over its own dark legacy of internment and displacement of native peoples and other minorities. But that doesn’t mean it can’t consistently and actively condemn gross human rights violations of ethnic minorities happening today, rather than belatedly taking actions like imposing sanctions only after trying and failing to lower tariffs and improve the sitting president’s re-election prospects. The American and Chinese people both deserve better.