U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday called for a stronger response to the Chinese government’s repression of Muslims in China’s far west and asked the FBI to investigate claims of intimidation against some immigrant communities in the United States.
The remarks, coinciding with annual rights report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, were the latest signal of more assertive U.S. statements on Chinese rights issues as the Trump administration presses its trade battles with Beijing.
Last week, Vice President Pence made a speech calling for a fundamental reset for U.S.-China ties.
The congressional commission — a bipartisan group created by Congress to monitor developments in human rights and other issues in China — used this year’s report to highlight the persecution of Chinese Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China’s western Xinjiang region.
As many as 1 million ethnic Uighur and other minorities have been interned for “political reeducation,” according U.N. findings released in August.
China has largely dismissed or rebuffed foreign criticism of its crackdown, first denying the network of internment camps existed and now arguing they are a necessary and just response to what Beijing calls Islamist extremism.
A child and a woman wait outside a school entrance with multiple layers of barbed wire and barricades in Peyzawat, in western China's Xinjiang region on Aug. 31, 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
The commission’s co-chairmen, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), unveiled a bill that seeks to condemn the Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and urged the U.S. government to consider sanctions on Chinese leaders.
Rubio also said he would nominate a jailed Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, for the Nobel Peace Prize and urge the International Olympic Committee to review China’s plans to host 2022 Winter Olympics.
In a letter addressed to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Rubio and Smith called on the agency to look into allegations that the Chinese Communist Party is harassing and intimidating diaspora communities, including Uighurs with family in Xinjiang, on U.S. soil.
“Members of the Uyghur diaspora community in the United States have indicated they are unwilling to appear at public events, including congressional hearings, out of fear they will be surveilled and their family members in China punished as a result. This is unacceptable,” the letter reads, using one variation of the spelling of Uighur.
The letter also asks the FBI to set up an anonymous tip line to “counter brazen Chinese government threats and influence operations on U.S. soil.”
The moves on Capitol Hill come at a time when China is doubling down on its Xinjiang policies in the face of international pressure.
The Xinjiang regional legislature on Wednesday unveiled a revision to its anti-extremism law that gives county-level officials the authority to set up “education and transformation organizations” to “transform people who have been influenced by extremism.”
The updated law represented the first time China has attempted to provide some semblance of legal justification for the detention centers, which have been operating secretly for years outside of China’s judicial system.
Until recently, China outright denied the existence of the centers despite extensive documentary evidence, first-person accounts and satellite images showing their buildup across Xinjiang — a huge swathe of land bordering Central Asia.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials and state media have offered full-throated defenses of its actions in Xinjiang, often by warning about the danger of Islamic extremism.
But the new law appeared to equate things like not watching Chinese television and not smoking as evidence of radicalization.
On Monday, Communist Party officials in the Xinjiang regional capital urged cadres via social media to fight an ideological battle against the trend of approving foods for halal certification. Allowing more foods to be labeled halal could promote the spread of Islamic practice and ultimately lead to the “mire of religious extremism,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said in an article about the campaign.
The next day, Tianshan, a news portal run by the Xinjiang government, published a fiery essay hailing the region’s crackdown as an “emancipation of the mind.”
“Recently, some Western countries have gotten worked up like a shrill housewife threatening to impose ‘sanctions’ on China,” the essay read. “Is the situation really as bad as they say?”
Shih reported from Hong Kong.