Nearly 20 U.S. lawmakers have penned a letter to Washington’s top diplomat and Treasury Secretary, urging them to level sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political “re-education camps” throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
In a letter dated Aug. 28, and obtained by RFA’s Uyghur Service on Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith—co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC)—and 15 other bipartisan lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin raising concerns over what they called a “human rights crisis” in the XUAR.
“Muslim ethnic minorities [in the XUAR] are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored,” the letter said.
“Given the gravity of the situation, and the severity and scope of the rights abuses being perpetrated, we urge you to apply Global Magnitsky sanctions, and consider additional measures, against senior Chinese Government and Communist Party officials who oversee these repressive policies.”
The lawmakers identified for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, who has implemented a litany of harsh policies attacking the rights and freedoms of ethnic Uyghur Muslim residents of the XUAR since he was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
Under Chen’s watch, China’s government is creating a “high-tech police state” in the XUAR, the letter said, noting that in a CECC hearing in Washington last month, U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Kelley Currie had characterized the scope of the campaign as “truly breathtaking.”
“The detention of as many as a million or more Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in ‘political reeducation’ centers or camps requires a tough, targeted, and global response,” the lawmakers wrote.
“No Chinese official or business complicit in what is happening in the XUAR should profit from access to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”
List of targets
In addition to recommending Global Magnitsky sanctions against Chen, the letter also highlighted six other “XUAR officials complicit in human rights abuses.”
Among the six were Hu Lianhe, the deputy director general of the Ninth Bureau of the United Front Work Department; Sun Jinlong, the deputy party secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC); Peng Jiarui, XPCC commander and deputy party secretary; and Zhu Hailun, the head of the Xinjiang Politics and Law Commission.
The list also included two ethnic Uyghur officials—Shohret Zakir, deputy party secretary and regional government chairman (XUAR), and Shawket Imin, head of the regional United Front Work Department (XUAR).
The lawmakers also urged consideration of sanctions targeting “entities assisting XUAR officials in mass detentions and surveillance of ethnic minorities.”
They specifically mentioned Chinese companies Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. Ltd., which they said “have profited greatly” from the surge in security spending in the region, winning government contracts worth some U.S. $1.2 billion for large scale surveillance projects.
“We therefore urge the Departments of State and Treasury to swiftly act to sanction those individuals and entities complicit in and directing human rights violations in the XUAR,” the letter said.
“At a time when the Chinese government is seeking to expand its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, the last thing China’s leaders want is international condemnation of their poor and abusive treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.”
Exile community reacts
Dolkun Isa, the head of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), told RFA’s Uyghur Service he is “extremely pleased” that members of Congress had called for sanctions against Chinese officials who he said “are committing crimes against humanity” by detaining Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in “concentration camps” in the XUAR.
“The WUC is profoundly grateful to the leadership of Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith for this positive effort,” he said.
“I’m confident that other Western leaders will soon follow America’s example in this matter and take global actions against China’s brutal persecution of the peaceful Uyghur people.”
Nury Turkel, the chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), applauded the decision to “draw attention to one of the worst human rights crises of the 21st century.”
“The joint letter clearly shows that China’s extrajudicial detention of one million Uyghurs has become a bipartisan issue at the U.S. Congress,” he said.
“This is particularly important when other Muslim and world leaders are unwilling to speak up about this issue of global concern.”
China's central government authorities have rarely acknowledged the existence of political re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. But local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
Earlier this month, a delegate from China present for the country’s review at the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination admitted the existence of "resettlement or re-education programs," but said the suggestion that some 1 million Uyghurs were held in the camps was “completely untrue.” He refused to provide information about how many are detained in the facilities.
Ahead of the review, China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, said they had found through interviews with people in the region that up to 3 million residents of the XUAR, especially ethnic Uyghurs, may have been detained in the political re-education camps or forced to attend “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” as of June this year.
A growing number of top U.S. officials have raised the issues of rights violations and mass detentions in the XUAR in recent weeks.
In July, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and Rubio spoke at separate events in Washington decrying re-education camps in the XUAR and calling on China to end its religious persecution of the Uyghurs, in a rare example of U.S. officials at such senior levels concertedly drawing attention to the issue.
Earlier last month, Pompeo told Voice of America in an interview that China should refrain from using “the guise of a counter terrorism investigation to persecute religious freedom” and condemned Beijing’s draconian policies in the XUAR.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service, with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.