Last year, I had the privilege of taking a private tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Americans and the Holocaust exhibit. The purpose of the exhibit is to highlight the role of average Americans and their response to the events of the Holocaust.
As I wandered the halls of the museum, my eyes were drawn to articles from World War II highlighting Kristallnacht and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. But nothing was more stunning than the row of miniature suitcases lined up—each one representing 5,000 people (mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandmothers, grandfathers—the vast majority of them Jewish refugees) who sought to escape to the United States.
The exhibit transitioned quickly from the reality of the needs (hundreds of thousands seeking safe haven) to the U.S. response. American journalists wrote droves of articles; student groups lobbied; and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., the lone Jewish member of FDR’s cabinet, paved the way for the creation of the War Refugee Board that resulted in tens, if not hundreds of thousands of mostly European Jews being spared during the Holocaust.
Now, instead of witnessing the assault of the German government on Jewish people, the American people are watching history repeat itself, as another government—this time, China—launches an all-out assault on the Muslim religious minority Uighurs.
The breakneck speed with which the Chinese government has collectivized and interred what is now believed to be 1.8 million Muslims in political reeducation camps is breathtaking.
The facts are now undeniable.
The recent leak of classified data from China by The New York Times confirmed the existence of a vast web of political prison camps that Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation now believes number between 1,300 and 1,400.
The data leak, now termed the Xinjiang Papers, traces the massive repression and internment directly to the very top of the Chinese political system. There can be no doubt that Xi Jinping sold this modern phenomenon in speeches and enabled Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo to orchestrate it. The proposal of mass collectivization and arbitrary detention of nearly 2 million people was apparently objected to by some members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Xinjiang Papers reveals that those who objected were subsequently purged.
There is no shortage of reasons why anyone might object to these camps. Prisoners in the camps are subject to re-education reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Forced to recant their religious beliefs or at least make them conform with the CCP’s ends, they are also induced to forsake their native language in favor of Mandarin. New reports indicate that individuals in the camps may be subject to forced sterilization and are injected with unknown substances to be experimented on like lab rats. Torture is increasingly reported, and some have even died while in custody.
While Chinese authorities have sought to sell re-education camps as vocational training centers that Uighurs graduate from and go on to live so-called reformed lives, what that means in practice are countless Uighurs missing, their family members lucky enough to be abroad calling attention to their cases and even starting a Twitter campaign, #StillNoInfo, as they search for those still missing. It also means well-educated Uighurs being forced to trade in their white-collar jobs for work in factories that leave them dependent on the Chinese state for their income.
What sets collectivization of the Uighurs apart from previous periods of collectivization, both in China, but also in other parts of the world, is the rapid pace in which it took place.
The speed at which such a large population of people could be uprooted from their homes and extrajudicially interned was made possible principally through surveillance technology—technology that, according to Human Rights Watch, deems it suspicious to exit out the back door rather than the front door of your home, and sees attendance at mosque as grounds for interrogation or internment. Normal human behavior, to live one’s life according to one’s closely-held beliefs, is seen as threatening the Chinese Communist Party, to whom the state supersedes all other allegiances.
In the face of such atrocities, it is easy for individuals and governments to feel paralyzed. After all, how does one respond to such distortions of human existence like the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, Darfur or Burma, or the gulags of the Soviet Union?
The Americans and the Holocaust exhibit really was a charge to all Americans.
To the American people—who among you will call on your elected leaders to respond? Who will be a good neighbor? Even to your neighbor across the Pacific.
Will you be there for them in their time of need?
To the students—who will organize student groups and events to raise awareness?
To civil society—who will write the articles and document the evidence for future justice? Who will hold prayer meetings? Who will support local Uighurs recently resettled in the United States as they mourn lost family members or try to find those still missing?
To the U.S. government—who will be the next Henry Morgenthau?
The American people have a beautiful penchant for loving and caring—a philanthropic spirit, as it is often described. This is because U.S. leaders such as Ronald Reagan called us to our better selves—to be that shining city on a hill—in whatever form that looks like in the present.
Persecution of the Uighurs demands a strong U.S. response, but as illustrated in the case of the Holocaust, it took pressure from the American people, from civil society, and leaders in the U.S. government to be willing to lead and do what it is possible for the United States to do to serve those in need in the face of such earth-shattering atrocities.
Doing what is possible means advancing freedom and values in Asia.
Doing what is possible means sanctioning Chen Quanguo.
Doing what is possible may involve granting priority refugee resettlement status to Uighurs.
In the face of such severe human-rights violations, the United States should not miss this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom wherever it is challenged. Today, it’s in China.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times