Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, are under duress from Beijing. Since early 2017, Chinese authorities detained between 800,000 to 1.2 million primarily Uighurs in political “reeducation” facilities.
Former prisoners from these camps in Xinjiang describe crowded conditions where detainees are subjected to political indoctrination, mandatory Mandarin lessons and, in some cases, forced labor and torture. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported numerous deaths at the facilities due to “poor conditions and psychological pressure.”
Their plight has been met largely by silence from the Muslim world. That changed in February when Turkey became the first, and so far the only, Muslim-majority country to issue a formal statement condemning Beijing for its egregious treatment of the Uighurs. The only other Muslim-majority countries to condemn China’s actions are Malaysia and Indonesia. Both countries voiced concerns, but have yet to issue formal statements condemning abuses.
China wants to nip these embarrassing objections in the bud, and so it is threatening retaliation against Turkey, a longtime friend. In the wake of Turkish criticism, Beijing shut down its consular office in Izmir, Turkey’s second largest city, and warned of diplomatic and economic consequences, should Ankara continue to air its concerns publicly.
Turkey’s criticism was fully warranted, but it hit a sore spot for China. Above all things, the Chinese government wishes to preserve its internal stability and territorial integrity. It sees criticism of treatment of the Uighurs as meddling in its own internal affairs—something anathema to Beijing. The mindset there is: “I mind my own business, and you mind yours. So long as you do that, we do business together, no strings attached.”
Closing the consular office was the diplomatic equivalent of a warning shot. Its aim was to discourage other Muslim countries from following Turkey’s lead so that it could intimidate other countries into not issuing condemnations of their own. It was also designed to give other countries pause to weigh the costs of taking a principled stand to hold China accountable for its treatment of Uighurs.
China is betting that the international community will be willing to overlook its severe human rights violations in favor of continued economic engagement. Here’s hoping Beijing loses that wager.
It is time for the international community to fire back.
Since reports first emerged of mass detainment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the U.S. has repeatedly issued strong condemnations. For example, after meeting with formerly detained Uighurs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Chinese government to release all arbitrarily detained persons. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback have spoken forcefully on this subject as well.
Congressional leaders have also condemned Beijing’s egregious behavior. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced legislation condemning the treatment of Uighurs and requesting that Treasury issue sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against those responsible for atrocities in Xinjiang.
Now the U.S. must go beyond mere condemnation and move toward action.
For example, the Treasury should sanction Chen Quanguo, the party secretary for the Xinjiang Autonomous region. Chen Quanguo is directly responsible for what is happening in the province. He and other members of the Chinese government who play a verifiable role in repressing the Muslim population in Xinjiang should face consequences for their actions. On April 3, a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives led by Sens. Rubio and James McGovern (D-Mass.) issued a strongly-worded letter calling on Secretaries Pompeo, Mnuchin, and Ross to do just that.
Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang are reminiscent of those committed during the Cultural Revolution. They demand international attention and action. And the U.S. should lead in forming a coalition of nations, both Muslim-majority countries and others, willing to take a firm line with Beijing.
The statement from Turkey was well-placed and a reminder of the weight given to Muslim countries that defend their brothers and sisters in faith.
However, it is not solely the responsible of Muslim-majority stakeholders to take a stand.
What is happening to Uighur Muslims could happen— and in the case of China is happening – to people of all faiths. It is the responsibility of the U.S. and other international defenders of freedom to call on China to immediately stop its detention of Uighur Muslims and repression of people of faith.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes