China’s Ambassador to the U.S. has threatened retaliation if Washington sanctions Beijing over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), drawing condemnation from observers who say officials responsible for the violations must be held to account for their actions.
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.
Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith—chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Committee (CECC)—have said they plan to introduce the Xinjiang Uygur Human Rights Act, which would “direct U.S. resources to address gross violations of universally recognized human rights, including the mass internment of over a million Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities in China and the intimidation and threats faced by U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Ambassador Cui Tiankai told Reuters news agency that China is working to “re-educate” terrorists and should not be punished for what he suggested is a more humane approach to counter-terrorism.
“We are trying to re-educate most of them, trying to turn them into normal persons [who] can go back to normal life,” Cui said.
Cui warned that Beijing would retaliate in kind if any sanctions were placed on Chinese officials.
“If such actions are taken, we have to retaliate,” Cui said, without providing details about China’s possible response.
Cui’s comments came ahead of a working dinner planned for Dec. 1 between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires, which is expected to focus on deescalating an ongoing trade war between the two nations.
In response to Cui’s comment, a spokesperson with the U.S. State Department told RFA’s Uyghur Service on Wednesday that the U.S. “will continue to call on China to end these counterproductive policies and free all those arbitrarily detained” in the XUAR, noting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about the issue “in no uncertain terms” with his counterpart Yang Jiechi during a meeting in Washington earlier this month.
“We are committed to promoting accountability for those who commit human rights violations and abuses, including by considering targeted measures against Xinjiang officials,” the spokesperson said.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Representative Chris Smith dismissed Cui’s warning, saying that China’s government is “in gross violation of human rights” in the XUAR and “needs to be held to account.”
Smith said that Beijing is “using the pretext of terrorism” to incarcerate and otherwise undermine the Uyghur community in a way that is “almost without precedent in modern times.”
“No government has the right to do that … and they’re doing it with impunity and then saying they’re retaliating,” he said.
“Go ahead and retaliate—it’s about time we stood up for the Chinese people. That’s where our hearts and solidarity have to be with, not with a dictatorship that ruins lives, kills its own people, tortures, forcibly aborts its own babies, and crushes religion, like no other dictatorship I have ever seen.”
When asked if he expects Trump to bring up the topic of human rights during his dinner with Xi, Smith said he hopes the U.S. leader “not only mentions it, I hope he pushes it very aggressively,” noting that Trump has “been tough on trade” and it is now time for him to “be very tough on human rights abuse.”
“People say, ‘what is the connection with trade?’ Do you think we can expect people to respect copyrights and intellectual property rights if they can’t even respect their own people?” the lawmaker said.
“This is barbaric and I think people have to realize that about this government, and I hope the President raises human rights in a very, very profound way, and starts with the Uyghurs.”
Call for evidence
Cui’s comments were also questioned by Sophie Richardson, China director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, who said that Beijing has yet to offer credible justification for detaining up to a million people, most of whom have not been charged with a crime.
“Let’s be very clear, states have an obligation to provide national security, but they don’t get to do that by depriving whole populations of their human rights,” she said.
“Moreover, if the Chinese government has evidence that people are engaged in violent criminal activities, they have a legal system that is designed to handle those kinds of cases. It is not an acceptable response to detain an entire subset of an ethnic minority and allege that they’re terrorists.”
Richardson called on Cui to provide proof that those detained in the XUAR have taken part in criminal activities, as defined by international law.
“The problem is, we all know he doesn’t have it,” she said.
“The sole basis for people’s detention is their identity, and that is not a national security threat. That’s not a crime. And to detain people on the basis of that is a gross human rights violation.”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency last month that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
Scholars weigh in
Earlier this week, dozens of scholars from across the globe issued a joint statement expressing concern over China’s mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the XUAR and called on the international community to take action against “the mass human rights abuses and deliberate attacks on indigenous cultures” in the region.
“The signatories to this statement are united in viewing the present situation in this region of China as one of significant international concern,” the statement said.
“This situation must be addressed to prevent setting negative future precedents regarding the acceptability of any state’s complete repression of a segment of its population, especially on the basis of ethnicity or religion.”
The scholars called on China to shut down the re-education camp system, urged states and institutions to impose economic sanctions on Chinese authorities and technology companies that are benefiting from the system, and demanded that governments grant asylum to Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities at risk in the region and refuse to deport them to China.
Reported by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.