Behind green barbed-wire fences sit rows of men and rows of women, segregated by gender. They have been stripped of any religious clothing and instead wear royal blue jumpsuits. Behind these fences, Uyghur Muslims go to have “their thoughts transformed.” China claims these camps are necessary for preventing future acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. The country has built more of these camps at an alarming rate, all the while claiming that it is scaling back re-education efforts. These actions have brought the condemnation of some countries in the United Nations, as well as the United States. Attempts at further “re-education” will likely increasingly be met by more aggressive economic sanctions because detention camps violate international law and China’s promised obligation to protect human rights.
The term “re-education” severely understates the extent of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. A concentration camp is a more accurate term. Outside observers have increasingly found conduct inside the so-called re-education camps that amount to human rights abuses. The COVID-19 pandemic has only enabled further Chinese Communist Party control over the area. With other countries and the United Nations distracted by the chaos of controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus, China has taken advantage of the situation to violate human rights treaties and its constitution.
The Chinese government carefully planned out its strategy in Xinjiang. Foreign policy scholars have long recognized Chinese leaders for their “long game” decision-making and willingness to break human rights rules if they knew they could escape retribution. With China’s triumphant arrival in the world as a superpower, the country has sought to change the rules of conduct in the post-Westphalian order. The Chinese Communist Party did not have this opportunity in the past because it had no alternative but to deal with extensive economic and political problems in its domestic affairs.
Yet domestic affairs are what China claims as to the reason for its actions in Xinjiang. The United States has traditionally attributed China’s motives for these extreme actions to terrorism prevention. The definition of terrorism has changed over time for the regime, expanding to rationalize extensive preemptive operations. There is significant secrecy surrounding much of what is happening in Xinjiang, so it is challenging to determine how problematic terrorism is for China. The Chinese government does not release information on terrorist attacks or activities within its borders.
While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the United States has started to release a Homeland Threat Assessment every month or so, China does not share this type of information with its citizens. China sees such transparency as an opportunity for foreign influence, which could potentially endanger the health of the regime. All intelligence stays under the control of the agencies that collected it. International organizations and allies of the United States have mostly discovered the detention camps in Xinjiang because of refugees escaping into Turkey and other nearby Muslim countries, as well as leaked footage spread by interned prisoners.
Human rights organizations, UN officials, and over 35 foreign governments have continually urged the People’s Republic of China to retreat from its crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. On the other hand, there are a handful of countries such as Cambodia, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Russia that support China’s actions as they relate to “counter-terrorism” initiatives. Those countries that have vehemently spoken out against the PRC (primarily the United States and the United Kingdom) have taken both unilateral and multilateral steps in an attempt to publicly punish China for its ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people.
On July 9th, 2020, the United States unilaterally imposed economic or visa-based sanctions against four Chinese Communist Party officials, as well as one government entity found responsible for human rights violations in Xinjiang. Although this is a step in the right direction, many human rights supporters and academics see this as a step taken too late. Under the Trump administration, response to the situation in Xinjiang has been slow. Some have suggested that the United States ought to widen the scope of these sanctions to include Xinjiang abuses. In addition to direct sanctions, the United States could also seek to interfere with supply chains involving Xinjiang that international human rights have implicated as potentially engaging in forced labor.
Regarding multilateral actions, the European Union and the United States have been called on to investigate abuses in Xinjiang as they did in Sudan and Myanmar. Additionally, the British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce has called on China to respect religious freedom. In October 2019, Karen Pierce also released a statement on Xinjiang on behalf of 23 other countries, stating that the UN had received credible reports of mass detention. She explained that the purpose of this mass detention is to restrict cultural and religious practices. Pierce warned that the UN would devise consequences for these actions if China did not comply with its international obligations to respect human rights and to allow human rights monitors access detention centers.
The CCP is promoting a value proposition that challenges western belief in respecting individual freedom and defending human rights. Under current leadership, the CCP has accelerated its efforts to take advantage of the current vulnerable global situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic and sought to increase its presence in Xinjiang while the rest of the world focuses on more pressing issues. Long-term consequences must be considered not only for US national security but also for the potential impacts on the global hierarchy. The CCP aims to make China a global leader by increasing its national power and international influence. This could lead to a stand-off between China and other global superpowers that China views as aiming to “contain China’s rise” by taking an interest in Xinjiang activity.
The United States along with other Western powers can counteract both the current erosion of human rights and the attack on the global hierarchy by offering asylum to the Uyghurs and continuing to impose targeted economic sanctions on abusive officials and products made by Uyghur labor. China’s regime is not impervious to public shame and if it were not confident that it could take such actions without international backlash, they would try to keep it hidden. Some say that the West has too much to lose by picking a moral fight with China, but the reality is that China is unlikely to change soon and the acrimony of the situation will stall talks on policies ranging from trade to climate change, things that the West, particularly the United States, use to gain political legitimacy domestically and internationally.