The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill on Wednesday that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs that has imposed blanket surveillance and landed some 1.5 million residents of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in internment camps.
The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which requires endorsement by the full U.S. Senate and ratification by the House of Representatives, would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network and the security threats posed by the crackdown.
Up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017. Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets has shown that those in the camps routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions.
“It is long overdue to hold Chinese government and Communist Party officials accountable for systemic and egregious human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the legislation, with Democrat Bob Menendez.
“Today we are all Uyghurs, and China’s horrific and systematic abuse of its Uyghur minority is an affront to all people who value the principles of universal human rights, and Beijing’s imposition of systemic mass surveillance in Xinjiang should send a chill down the spine of every person who values humanity, human life, and ethnic, religious and cultural freedom,” Menendez said.
Menendez called the bipartisan legislation “an important stand today against President Xi (Jinping) and the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of a dystopian authoritarian future for their own people and for the planet.”
The bill provides a catalog of documented mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims that precedes the detention camps.
“In recent decades, central and regional Chinese government policies have systematically discriminated against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang by denying them a range of civil and political rights, including the freedoms of expression, religion, movement, and a fair trial, among others,” says the legislation.
“Increased unrest in the Xinjiang region as a result of the central government’s severe repression is used in Orwellian fashion by the Government of the People’s Republic of China as evidence of ‘terrorism’ and ‘separatism’ and as an excuse for further disproportionate response,” it said.
The legislation requires U.S. intelligence agencies to report to Congress on the “regional security threat posed by the crackdown and the frequency with which Central Asian countries are forcibly returning Turkic Muslim refugees and asylum seekers,” as well as a list of Chinese companies involved in building and running the camps.
It requires an FBI report on efforts to protect U.S. citizens and residents, including Uyghurs from “Chinese government harassment and intimidation on American soil” and a report from the U.S. Agency for Global Media on Chinese efforts to intimidate Radio Free Asia employees and the reach of U.S. broadcasting to Xinjiang.
Among those in custody in Xinjiang are dozens of family members of RFA Uyghur Service reporters.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department's human rights and democracy bureau, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, said in March that people "haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s" and called the internment of more than a million Uyghurs "one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today."
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.