Senior U.S. officials this week stepped up a campaign to press China to reverse its policy of detaining a million or more Uyghurs in so-called reeducation camps, with a Pentagon official warning that the mass incarceration posed a security threat as it increased the “potential for radicalization” of the oppressed Muslims.
“We do worry about the effects these will have on regional security and potential for radicalization. Treating people this way can certainly lead to those outcomes,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver.
“It is a humanitarian issue, it is a religious freedom issue, but for us at the Department of Defense it is also a security issue,” he told a two-day conference in Washington titled “Confronting Atrocities in China: The Global Response to the Uyghur Crisis.”
“The Chinese government’s rampant abuse of the human rights and religious freedoms of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is an urgent issue impacting the broader region,” said David Ranz, acting deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.
“The deteriorating state of religious freedom in China, including the government’s increasing persecution of the Uyghurs and other Muslims minorities, is not only a bilateral issue with China; it is a regional and global one as well,” he told the gathering.
“It is a crisis that has engaged all corners of the State Department as we seek to build a global response to the Chinese government’s program of oppression,” added Ranz, who urged governments in China’s region and beyond to back the campaign to end the mass incarcerations.
“We call on China to end this campaign of repression, and immediately release the approximately 1 million arbitrarily detained in camps. We urge other governments of the region and the world to join us,” he said.
Schriver, a veteran China hand in Washington, said the Pentagon was engaged in a “whole of government approach” to “make sure that greater awareness is accomplished and then action, and meaningful action, to get the Chinese to change the approach, which is counterproductive, ultimately self-destructive.”
Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.
“The Muslim countries should do that. The Western world, the entire world, should do this and condemn these sort of internment camps, of over a million people interned in the year 2019, and they are interned primarily because of their faith and the practice of their faith,” he said.
The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act 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.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told RFA this week that the rights bill was "moving in a positive direction" and sent a message of support to the Uyghur conference on Thursday.
"Our hearts and minds are with the Uyghur communities, who face religious persecution, including harsh restrictions on observing Ramadan, which just ended this week. Today, and on all days, we reaffirm our commitment to sharing the stories and sharing the outrage of the millions of Uyghurs who are being watched, followed, disappeared in internment camps and made to suffer ‘re-education’ efforts," she said.
A related effort by U.S. lawmakers calls for the imposition of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on XUAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other Chinese officials “complicit in gross human rights abuses” against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
'The definition of terrorism'
New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, one of the sponsors of the Magnitsky drive, tweeted that “it is time the UN stepped up and recognize this genocide [...] there needs to be an outpouring of support & sympathy for the Uyghur people."
Wuer Kaixi, the charismatic Uyghur student leader of the 1989 student democracy movement, visiting Washington for the 30th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Massacre, lent his voice to the Uyghur cause.
"If you take the definition of terrorism as achieving political aims through violence and fear, that perfectly describes the actions of the Chinese Communist Party"
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.
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.
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.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written by Paul Eckert.