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Is the White House in Any Position to Help Chinese Muslims?

Rights advocates suggest the president's hostile rhetoric and policies on American Muslims jeopardize his administration's ability to advocate against abuses abroad.
Chinese policemen push Uighur women who are protesting at a street on July 7th, 2009, in Urumqi, China.

Chinese policemen push Uighur women who are protesting at a street on July 7th, 2009, in Urumqi, China.

With human rights advocates sounding alarms over China's mass-incarceration of its majority Muslim ethnic Uyghurs at so-called re-education camps, some worry the Trump White House's rhetoric and policies on American Muslims make it difficult for Washington to meaningfully advocate on the Uyghurs' behalf. Previous United States administrations had been vigilant in condemning Beijing's rights abuses in Xinjiang.

There have been numerous reports in recent months alleging that the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs in its far-Western region of Xinjiang. The detentions started in the spring of 2017, according to Peter Irwin, the spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress rights group—just after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, at a time when international rights advocates expressed fears that a world leadership vacuum would let autocratic regimes go unchecked in their human rights abuses.

Irwin describes a dire situation at the re-education camps. "Detainees are subjected to forced indoctrination at the hands of Chinese officials, primarily as a means of eroding the Uyghur identity," he says. "Torture has already been widely reported as well as a number of deaths in connection with the camps." The Department of State confirmed reports of the camps but did not speak of torture in an emailed comment to Pacific Standard.

Xinjiang is a key strategic zone for Beijing as a delivery route for natural gas and oil exports from neighboring Central Asian countries. But the region is also the site of perennial ethnic tensions between the Uyghurs and China's Han ethnic majority. Uyghur rights advocates have, in recent years, decried extrajudicial killings and socioeconomic and political marginalization—all of which, they say, are conducted with the Han majority's interests in mind. Beijing charges that Uyghurs have engaged in separatist terrorism.

Many Chinese human rights advocates say Uyghurs suffer from the same problems with government accountability and encroachment on civil liberties faced by all Chinese nationals, particularly the nation's ethnic minorities, which also includes the embattled Tibetans.

The camps and widespread surveillance of Uyghurs' everyday life are "an extreme escalation of an already repressive situation, which many are comparing to the excesses of the Mao era," says Nicole Morgret, a project manager at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project advocacy group. "The scale [of the detentions] is enormous, and is taking place outside of any formal legal system, meaning those accused of disloyalty have no means of legal defense and in many cases are simply disappeared."

With Uyghurs being taken to re-education camps, the question becomes whether Washington is prepared to act in their defense at a time when the White House has come under fire for policies that many say are hostile to Muslims in the U.S. (and are inspiring hate crimes across the country).

"Donald Trump's rhetoric and policies regarding Muslims are shockingly discriminatory—but Chinese President Xi Jinping's are no less so, particularly at a time when his government is effectively criminalizing the practice of Islam, arbitrarily detaining hundreds of thousands of people solely on the basis of their ethnically Turkic identity, and subjecting people across Xinjiang to gross human rights violations," says Sophie Richardson, the Human Rights Watch's China director.

Trump's discriminatory words and actions at home don't preclude him from his responsibility to save Uyghurs, Richardson says. "There are no better ways just now for all governments, including the U.S., to demonstrate their commitments to human rights and religious freedom than urgently intervening with Beijing to end its vast abuses in Xinjiang."

For years, China has issued a retort to frequent U.S. condemnations of China's human rights abuses by publishing its own "Human Rights Record of the United States." The report notes the double standard in Washington's assessment of China's human rights record; a chief talking point in recent Chinese reports on the U.S. has been the extrajudicial killing of unarmed people of color by American police. Critics of the Chinese report have dismissed it as a manifestation of Soviet-style whataboutism.

This cross-Pacific back-and-forth aside, nothing absolves a nation's leader of the responsibility to uphold human rights, says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a non-governmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong.

"Of course each government's own human rights record impacts on the credibility and legitimacy of its critique of another government's human rights problems," Hom says. "However, this should not be used as an excuse to not speak or to silence critique."

A Department of State spokesperson who spoke on the condition of anonymity tells Pacific Standard the administration was "deeply troubled by the Chinese government's worsening crackdown on Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."

"China has the right to protect its security and to counter violent extremism. However, indiscriminate and disproportionate controls on ethnic minorities' expressions of their cultural and religious identities have the potential to incite radicalization and recruitment to violence," the spokesperson added. "We will continue to raise our deep concerns with the Chinese government."

Rights advocates believe sanctions present the best means by which Washington can address the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Global Magnitsky Act, which was passed under the Obama administration in response to human rights abuses in China against a Russian anti-graft activist, offers a legal mechanism for holding Beijing accountable, they say.

"The Global Magnitsky Act is a piece of legislation that allows the U.S. to sanction individual officials outside the U.S. who are engaging in gross human rights violations, so this is one way forward for a targeted impact from the United States," says Irwin, the World Uyghur Congress spokesman.

Irwin says a primary goal for his organization is simply to supply the public with information on these rights abuses. A great many Americans have never heard of Uyghurs in the first place.

"Advocacy starts with education—we can't act unless we're informed," Irwin says.