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Why Trump Probably Won't Address China's Human Rights Violations in His Meeting With Xi Jinping

At best, the issue of Uyghur re-education camps will come up as leverage to achieve Trump's economic policy objectives with Beijing, analysts predict.
A woman takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the closure of re-education camps in China, on April 27th, 2018.

A woman takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the closure of re-education camps in China, on April 27th, 2018.

The upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has garnered international attention for its potential implications on global trade. What's been less discussed by pundits—and indeed is a less likely point of discussion between the two world leaders during this week's Group of 20 summit in Argentina—is China's human rights violations against its ethnic Uyghurs. Despite mounting bipartisan congressional support to put pressure on Xi, at most Trump may bring up the imprisonment of one million ethnic Uyghurs as a bargaining chip to advance trade negotiations, analysts predict.

"We have real concerns about the potential for the Uyghur issue to be instrumentalized to the benefit of a broader confrontation with China, and possibly see the issue not so much in terms of the humanitarian catastrophe that it is, but as a mere political tool," says Peter Irwin, the spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress rights group.

If recent interviews are any indication, even that seems unlikely. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that he plans to put tariffs on more Chinese goods in the event of unsuccessful trade negotiations. Trump's threat comes a week after the administration released an updated report on what United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called China's "unfair, unreasonable, and market-distorting practices."

Other experts point to what they call a suspect track record in Trump's ability to act as a global authority on human rights in the way that his predecessors in the White House have. "Realistically, I would only see the Trump administration commenting on the detention of Uyghur Muslims in China if it somehow benefited their public criticisms against China in terms of their trade deal negotiations," says Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations' national office in Washington, D.C. "They wouldn't be directly advocating for the rights of Muslims for the sake of human rights; they would more use the issue as a wedge against China for a more favorable trade deal, creating pressure in the U.N. or other international policymaking bodies."

It is anticipated that the Trump–Xi talks will focus squarely on trade, even while hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim-majority Turkic ethnic minority groups languish in re-education camps throughout the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where they are tortured and brainwashed against their culture and Islam.

The hyper-focus on trade ahead of Trump's talks with Xi comes despite mounting bipartisan support in both houses of Congress for the Trump administration to pressure Beijing on its treatment of the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) on behalf of a coalition of Democratic and Republic legislators in the Senate earlier this month, condemns the camps and calls for targeted sanctions against people involved in their imprisonment. The text of the bill reads: 

[T]he President should condemn abuses against Turkic Muslims by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang and call on Chinese President Xi Jinping to recognize the profound abuse and likely lasting damage of China's current policies, and immediately close the "political re-education" camps, lift all restrictions on and ensure respect for internationally guaranteed human rights across the region, and allow for reestablishment of contact between those inside and outside China.

The legislation is a sign of overwhelming support for Trump to raise Xinjiang's re-education camps in his meetings with Xi.

"The Uyghur Human Rights policy Act is a major piece of legislation aiming to protect the Uyghur people," says Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project advocacy group. "The bipartisan support for the measure and a growing number of U.S. congressional voices expressing shock at the scale and ruthlessness of the camps should not be taken lightly by the Chinese leadership."

Those voices should amount to a wake-up call for Trump, Szadziewski says. "In my experience, the level of condemnation from the media, [non-governmental organizations], academia, government, and legislative bodies for Chinese state repression of Uyghurs is unprecedented. This is no coincidence or an attempt to impose external values, it is a clear indicator of the breathtaking abuses of fundamental human rights underway in Xinjiang."

Yet the administration has kept mum thus far on human rights violations in China's far West. Rights advocates like World Uyghur Congress' Irwin encourage Trump to speak but aren't confident about the prospects for that.

"Trump should tell Xi that if he wants cooperation from the United States, the internment facilities must be immediately closed and all people arbitrarily detained there released," Irwin says. But he admits that's a long shot. "Although the United States remains the sole government willing to consistently raise the Uyghur issue in different fora, it remains to be seen if human rights factor at all into Trump's own calculus."

Others are fairly certain Xinjiang won't take center stage this week. "At this point, no one expects Trump to be a human rights or religious freedom proponent. Trump neglecting this and many other human rights issues is par for the course," CAIR's McCaw says. "I think the international community would have to move on this and drag the U.S. along." McCaw adds that he hopes that the newly empowered House Democrats will help to pressure that administration to act in the defense of Uyghurs and other Chinese minorities locked in the camps.

Xinjiang, the region where the re-education camps are located, borders energy-exporting Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan. After the popular movements that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 threatened its supply, China aimed to boost much-needed oil and gas imports from its more immediate neighbors, much of which would travel through Xinjiang. Perennial unrest from the Uyghurs and other Xinjiang-based ethnic communities appeared to threaten those imports. Analysts of Uyghur affairs—including prominent Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence on what many call trumped up charges of separatism—say that unrest among the Uyghurs is not about separatism but rampant socioeconomic disparity and gross human rights violations, including the extrajudicial killing of Uyghurs and the suppression of their culture and faith.