U.S. Senators have held rare talks with the Chinese Communist Party boss of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who has been widely accused of blatant human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs.
Congressional aides confirmed the low-profile meeting with regional Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian at Capitol Hill earlier this month, which was seen by some rights groups as a propaganda victory for Beijing.
The Chinese authorities launched a major crackdown in the Xinjiang region in the wake of bloody large scale protests two years ago.
Some congressional aides said three senators who met Zhang highlighted the plight of the Muslim Uyghurs to the Chinese delegation during its June 8-13 trip, the first by a Xinjiang official to Washington since riots left some 200 people dead in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009.
Zhang spoke briefly with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senators Mark Kirk and Roger Wicker, in addition to participating in a presentation on radical Islam at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC).
While the AFPC said on its website that Zhang had “held a wide-ranging discussion with U.S. Senators on topics as diverse as health care, national security, and the treatment of religious minorities in China,” a spokesperson for Senator Cardin referred to the meeting as “quick” and called it a “stop by.”
An aide to Senator Wicker said the lawmaker's views on human rights were clear.
He referred to an earlier statement by Wicker that criticized China's rights record, especially its "increasingly arbitrary controls on civil society and disregard for the rule of law.”
“We are troubled to learn that extrajudicial measures such as house arrest, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and ‘re-education camps’ are now widely applied to religious leaders, civil society representatives, human rights activists, and the Chinese lawyers who seek to defend them,” according to the statement.
Still, the visit received a favorable write-up in a press release posted on the Xinjiang government official website, touting Zhang’s “active role in promoting the development of Sino-U.S. relations.”
It said he was “warmly welcomed” and praised his work in “promoting cooperation between Xinjiang and the U.S. in trade, technology, terrorism and other areas of pragmatic exchange.”
The statement quoted Zhang as saying that he was “willing to work with the U.S. senators from both parties to enhance mutual understanding and trust between China and the U.S., to deepen cooperation with each other, and to promote the long-term healthy and stable development of bilateral relations and joint efforts.”
Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association (UAA), condemned the visit and questioned the decision by U.S. lawmakers to meet with Zhang, whom he accused of oppressing the Uyghurs through "anti-terrorism" measures.
“We believe his visit is for propaganda purposes—mostly for domestic consumption,” Seytoff said.
“Obviously, we are not aware of the content of the discussions, but at least we hope the Senators raised the serious human rights violations by his administration in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and especially the massacre that took place on July 5 and thereafter,” he said.
“Otherwise—if they only talked about business and cooperation—that wouldn’t look very good for the U.S. government.”
“A person like him should not be allowed to come to the U.S. for the massive human rights violations that are currently taking place in East Turkestan,” he said.
“In the future, we hope that U.S. officials will not meet with him.”
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
At least 26 people, mostly Uyghurs, were sentenced to death in the aftermath of the 2009 riots, many of whom have been executed, according to state media.
A number of Uyghurs who sought refuge in neighboring countries following the unrest have been forcibly repatriated to China where they are likely to face torture and possibly death.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.