Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about persecution under Chinese rule in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities have held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a network of political “re-education camps” since April 2017.
During an interview with Mamatjan Juma at the State Department in Washington, Busby discussed inconsistencies in the way China has represented the camp system, what the U.S. has done to raise awareness of the situation in the XUAR, and why other countries have failed to speak out against or even defended China’s policies in the region. He also pledged continued U.S. support for the Uyghurs, saying that Washington will exert pressure on China for as long as people are being detained in the camps because of their ethnic background, and religious and cultural traditions.
RFA: What kind of concrete action has been taken to close [the camps] or release the detainees from the camps in China?
Busby: One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time on is trying to get the word out about what’s happening in Xinjiang. We have been sharing information with many other governments around the world, we’ve been doing public events talking about Xinjiang. We hosted—along with several other governments—a side event in Geneva, Switzerland on the margins of the U.N. Human Rights Council specifically devoted to the issue of the abuses taking place in Xinjiang … Secretary Pompeo, as you know, has met with several Uyghur individuals to hear about their experiences or the experience of their loved ones in the camps. So we have been focused, primarily to date, on getting the word out about the situation in Xinjiang, and I think the world now knows how horrible the situation is. There are other measures that we’re considering, but I can’t get into the details of the internal deliberations of the U.S. government at this point.
RFA: The definition of these facilities—some international human rights organizations and some observers are saying that these are concentration camps. Some researchers would say that these are internment camps. And Chinese is saying that these are vocational training centers. So in your view, what kind of facilities are they?
Busby: Clearly, they are not vocational training centers, as China says they are. There are many, many highly educated people in these camps, highly accomplished people in these camps, and that belies China’s own description of the camps. I don’t really want to get into what we should call them, but I will say we know that over a million people are in these camps, they are held there against their will, some of them are subject to torture, some of them are subject to cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment. We know that some people have died in the camps. So, clearly, what’s happening in the camps is horrific. And I should point out that, unfortunately, what’s occurring in Xinjiang is consistent with the history of what the Chinese Communist Party has done since it has taken power. The Chinese Communist Party has shown extreme hostility towards all religion since it took power, and that continues to be of great concern to us.
RFA: Has the United States sought access to those facilities—not the [Chinese government] organized [tours], but [independently] to see for themselves what is happening there?
Busby: We have asked for access on a number of occasions. While some of our diplomats have been able to travel to Xinjiang, we have not been given access to the facilities … We have also asked that China provide access to U.N. officials and to other like-minded governments, like our own, to have access to the camps, but so far that hasn’t been possible.
RFA: In your testimony, you said that there are 800,000 to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities detained in the camps. Has there been any change in this estimate, which you mentioned last November?
Busby: Our current best estimate is that there are at least one million people in the camps full time. There are a number of additional people who are required to go to some of these camps or to go to other facilities for a portion of their day. But our understanding, currently, is that there are at least one million people in the camps, and possibly more.
RFA: Why is China getting away with such horrendous abuses? If over one million people of a certain ethnicity were detained in other countries, there would have been very strong criticism around the world.
Busby: Many other countries haven’t spoken out and, in some cases, have actually defended the existence of these camps. We think this is a reflection of the power, unfortunately, that China exerts over other countries by virtue of the assistance that China is providing, by virtue of business relationships that China has. So I think a lot of countries are afraid of speaking the truth about what is going on in Xinjiang.
RFA: When is this [mass incarceration] going to stop?
Busby: It’s hard to know. As I said, there have been a few people who have been released from the camps. In a few cases, people have been allowed to leave the country, so there are some cases in which we’ve succeeded, I think, in helping them to get out of detention. And we will continue to press the Chinese on the individual cases of the family members of the RFA journalists and on other individual cases where we’re aware that relatives of people here in the United States are being held in the camps.
RFA: If a trade agreement between the United States and China is signed, will the U.S. government continue to push the Chinese to close the camps and release all the detainees?
Busby: We will continue to raise this issue so long as there are people being unjustly held in these camps, so long as the camps exist, and so long as people are being mistreated in the way they are being mistreated. You saw that when Secretary Pompeo spoke upon the release of our human rights reports. We will continue to report on these issues in the human rights reports, and we’ll continue to raise them with China at every opportunity.
RFA: Some are saying that China is carrying out ethnic cleansing or cultural genocide. Some even say that China is committing crimes against humanity. In your own view, how do you define what China is doing to the Uyghur people?
Busby: China appears to be intent on robbing the Uyghur people of their ethnicity, of their religion, and that’s a horrible, horrible thing. And unfortunately it’s consistent with some of the things the Chinese Communist Party has done since it took power in 1949, and we will continue to raise the alarm about these horrible actions they’ve taken.
RFA: Uyghur people see the United States as a beacon of hope and they believe the United States is the only country that can help them in this dire situation … What kind of message do you have for the Uyghur people?
Busby: The United States’ government and the United States’ people will continue to stand by the Uyghur people. We’re very, very concerned about what’s happening to Uyghur right now, and we will continue to raise our concerns publicly and privately. We will do all that we can to demonstrate our support for the Uyghur people.
Reported by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service.