Source: The New York Times
President Xi Jinping has imposed China’s most sweeping internment program since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when more than one million people were killed and millions of others were imprisoned, tortured and humiliated.
Citing credible reports, a United Nations panel last month said up to one million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, are being held in detention camps without benefit of any formal legal process. The repression is severe enough to have raised concerns even within the Trump administration — not known for a preoccupation with human rights abroad — and the administration is weighing possible sanctions against the regime, a step that justice clearly demands.
Mr. Xi is China’s most powerful modern leader, and he is turning his country into an economic and political powerhouse. But his achievements are deeply tainted by human rights abuses, including the repression of the Uighurs, the largest of the Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China.
Uighurs are being accused of having an “ideological virus” and are sometimes detained for nothing more than reciting a verse of the Quran at a funeral. Held in heavily guarded, often secret camps and cut off from their families, prisoners are forced to listen to indoctrination lectures that human rights activists describe as brainwashing, write self-criticism letters and renounce their commitment to Islam. All are chilling echoes of the Cultural Revolution.
Aided by technology — some of which American companies are believed to be selling to Chinese firms — the Communist Party’s overseer in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, has intruded into the lives of Uighurs even when they are not detained in the camps. Security forces collect DNA samples when Uighurs undergo state-run medical checkups, install GPS tracking systems in vehicles and cellphones and operate checkpoints and other dehumanizing surveillance, like cameras installed in some homes.
In Beijing’s view, it’s not just that the Uighurs’ culture, language and religion differ from China’s majority Han population. The Uighurs’ history of independence movements and resistance to Chinese rule has long unsettled Beijing.
China has some legitimate concerns about instability in Xinjiang, and those Uighurs who have been involved in violence should be tried and punished. But the government’s concerns can’t justify reprisals against innocents who just happen to be members of the same ethnic group.
Persecuting people for their religious beliefs violates basic principles of justice as well as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which China signed in 1948. Moreover, while China wants a cooperative Uighur community, detentions and other abuses seem more likely to breed resentment and stoke broader radicalization.
Although little known in the West, the Uighurs’ case has stirred international outrage. Last month, the United Nations expressed alarm over the reports of mass detentions. The State Department has also expressed concern about the Uighurs, and their plight was highlighted during the department’s recent conference on religious freedom. Among Uighurs being detained are dozens of relatives of journalists associated with the American-based Radio Free Asia.
But there has been no robust united condemnation by the West or by Muslim countries.
One problem is that President Trump’s own fondness for strongmen and indifference to human rights undermines his administration’s criticism of China. And his anti-immigrant policies and imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports hardly incline Beijing to listen to lectures on what it considers internal matters.
While important, just condemning China’s ruthless practices is unlikely to be enough when Mr. Xi is doubling down on his totalitarian ways. His government has denied re-education camps exist while expanding them further.
To encourage China to change course, the United States and Europe will need to impose sanctions on Mr. Chen, the regional party boss, and others involved in the mass detention project, including Chinese companies underwriting surveillance systems. American companies should be barred from selling technology that abets human rights abuses.
As Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida; Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey; and other lawmakers wrote recently to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a time when China is seeking to expand its influence through a multibillion-dollar initiative of infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Europe, “the last thing China's leaders want is international condemnation of their poor and abusive treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.”
And the Uighurs may not be the end of it. As The Washington Post reported recently, Beijing is taking steps to suppress all five of China’s officially sanctioned religions — Catholicism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Daoism and Islam.
If no one stands up for the Uighurs, who will defend these other groups when Beijing turns its repressive hand on them?