Reports from rights groups, academics, and reporters show a staggering increase in the scale and intensity of repression of Uighurs in China’s far northwest region of Xinjiang. Reportedly, the Trump Administration is considering sanctions on Chinese officials and companies. That’s an improvement over the neglect of Uighurs in the past. However, Washington needs to recognize the connection between China’s approach to Xinjiang and its projection of power and ideas beyond its borders.
PRC repression of the Uighurs has a long history. After the region came under PRC control in 1949, the Party used it to house prison camps and nuclear testing facilities and exploited its natural resources. The authorities targeted language, religion, and education, and those who objected risked being labeled as “separatists.”
The new policies of mass incarceration in detention and re-education camps mark a qualitative and quantitative worsening. They bear the hallmarks of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule: the revival of Marxism-Leninism, the campaign to “Sinicize” religion, and the desire to secure Xinjiang, the jumping-off point for the land component of Xi’s legacy mega-project, the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
Adrian Zenz estimates, conservatively, “a detention rate of up to 11.5 percent of the region’s adult Uighur and Kazakh population.” Zenz and others rely on Chinese government procurement, construction, and personnel tenders to refute Chinese official denials that “there are no such things as re-education centers” to which Uighurs are sent for such things as setting a watch to local time instead of the official time zone, which China considers subversive, or observing basic tenets of the Islamic faith, including not serving alcohol in a restaurant. Former inmates of re-education camps interviewed by Human Rights Watch describe being forced to renounce Islam and demonstrate allegiance to the Party, China, and Xi Jinping by singing songs such as “Without the CCP, There’s No New China” and “Socialism Is Good.” They endure harsh conditions including shackling and punishments for failure to memorize rules in Mandarin, a language which many do not speak. The detention of parents has created a need for new facilities for their children.
Until recently, the Uighurs’ plight under Chinese rule received little interest in the United States. Unlike Tibetans, the Uighurs lack a leader like the Dalai Lama, who has preserved Tibetan Buddhist institutions in exile and democratized the formerly theocratic government. The real reason for neglecting the Uighurs, however, was official discomfort with championing Muslims after September 11—an inhibition China exploited by offering cooperation of little value while Washington boosted Beijing’s stance on the Uighurs by putting a tiny group on the terrorist list.
Finding common cause with Beijing on terrorism was bound to fail. America and communist-ruled China share no values, most of all when it comes to questions of law enforcement and justice. The Bush Administration established that all of the Uighurs it captured during the war in Afghanistan posed no threat to the United States but refused to send them back to China to face likely torture and execution. Finally, U.S. and Chinese strategic interests in the region are at odds. Beijing’s desire to control its periphery means it will always seek to prevent the spread of democracy around its borders.
China’s drive to secure Xinjiang played a direct role in Beijing’s leadership of the authoritarian assault on democracy and human rights. Eager to cut off Xinjiang from Uighur communities in nearby countries, Beijing settled border disputes and struck security pacts with Central Asian republics and Russia. These arrangements formed the basis for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an autocrats’ club which has served as an incubator for tactics and ideas to undermine the very notion of the universality of democracy and human rights.
At the same time, China has used its claim to Xinjiang as a “core interest,” along with Tibet and Taiwan, for leverage in its diplomatic relations and international organizations, achieving goals such as the forcible return of Uighur refugees or silence on China at the UN Human Rights Council. These demands are effective in a growing number of countries that receive, or want to receive, Chinese aid and investment and are evidence that, contrary to denials, Beijing’s largesse comes with “strings attached.”
Congress is right to press for sanctions against officials responsible for abuses in Xinjiang, but they should target officials and companies actually vulnerable to travel bans and asset freezes. In particular, members of Congress should review the impact of sanctions on Gao Yan, a police official, for his role in the death of Cao Shunli, a rights activist who died after being held in a jail Gao supervised. If the impact of penalizing such a low-level official is minimal, more senior officials should be sanctioned.
The broader lesson to be drawn is that China understands the connection between values and strategic interests. Where China is concerned, America has often minimized this connection. Since the rapprochement of the 1970s, American policy has been built on Cold War realism. A desire to rely on Beijing as a “tacit ally” in the struggle against the Soviet Union led to a lack of emphasis on human rights. Fang Lizhi, one of China’s most famous dissidents, called America’s softer line on China compared to the Soviet Union a “double standard.” Even after the Cold War, America cast about for a new strategic rationale to support close U.S.-China ties, rather than taking on the PRC’s enduring Marxist-Leninist character and the worldview that flows from it. As a result, the United States now faces a more powerful China projecting its power around its borders and into arenas where America and its democratic allies are losing influence.