US Lawmakers Call For Investigation of Mass Incarcerations, Surveillance of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

They say information should be gathered to determine the need for sanctions against Chinese officials.

Police officers on duty in the vicinity of a center believed to be used for re-education in Korla city, Xinjiang, Nov. 2, 2017.

Two U.S. lawmakers have called on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit northwest China’s Xinjiang region and gather information on senior officials responsible for the mass surveillance and detention of ethnic Uyghurs to determine whether Washington should level sanctions against them.

In a letter dated April 3, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith, the chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said Branstad should investigate the situation, as well as the detention of family members of six RFA Uyghur Service reporters, for possible implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

“We urge you to visit the XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), including the ‘political education centers,’ and to prioritize the situation in the XUAR in your interactions with Chinese government and Communist Party interlocutors, including the plight of the family members of these U.S.-based RFA journalists,” the letter said.

“Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the XUAR have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored—through facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans, DNA collection, and an extensive and intrusive police presence.”

Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in political “re-education camps” throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of Xinjiang have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.

Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of Xinjiang residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.

Among those in custody are dozens of family members of RFA Uyghur Service reporters, whose detentions Rubio and Smith said serve to “intimidate the families of U.S. government employees and undermine some of the most effective reporting from within the XUAR.”

“We urge you to personally lead diplomatic efforts to prioritize these cases, seek clarity as to the whereabouts and well-being of these individuals, and press for their release. If there is no immediate resolution to these cases, we ask that the State Department consider denying visas to executives or administrative staff of Chinese state-run media operating in the United States.”

The lawmakers also called on the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to begin compiling “relevant information regarding specific XUAR officials responsible for the arbitrary mass detention and abuse of Uyghurs for possible sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.”

The Magnitsky Act enables U.S. officials to freeze any U.S. assets held by those sanctioned, and to bar them from entry into the United States.

'A powerful message'

Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney and former president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) exile group, told RFA's Uyghur Service that the letter "demonstrates the growing interest of the U.S. Congress in the worsening human rights situation for Uyghur people in China."

"Requesting our embassy in Beijing to collect information on the human rights abusers and to sanction them under the Global Magnitisky Act would send a powerful message to those Chinese officials orchestrating and implementing the cruel and degrading treatments that the Uyghur people have been subjected to," he said.

"Ambassador Branstad should fulfill the promises that he made during his confirmation hearing, that he would work to improve the human rights situation in China.”

Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”

China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.

While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.

Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.