Over the course of US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, the United Nations confirmed that Beijing has placed over 1 million Muslims in internment camps, The New York Times revealed that Chinese authorities are running the first artificial intelligence-powered effort to track minority citizens on the basis of race, and Chinese officials shifted from denying mass detention and surveillance to publicizing it as a wise response to terror.
Trade negotiations now appear to have collapsed, and instead of signing a deal as he was expected to this month, Trump is bludgeoning Beijing with fresh passion ― increasing tariffs he already imposed on over $200 billion worth of Chinese products and publicly listing other exports his administration might soon target. “We’ve been treated unfairly for many, many decades,” the president said on Tuesday. But amid his many remarks about resetting the U.S.-China relationship, Trump has yet to comment on the country’s nightmarish high-tech human rights crisis ― or to directly use American influence to pressure Chinese officials responsible for abuses.
While others in the Trump administration, from Vice President Mike Pence to State Department and Pentagon officials, have slammed the crackdown, the silence from the top and the lack of real action during the trade talks signals that the worst repression in China since the brutal Cultural Revolution isn’t central to U.S. dealings with Beijing.
That’s a choice with a real cost in human suffering. Delaying measures that could force a winding-down of the policy perpetuates China’s sense of impunity, lawmakers and activists say, and millions more people remain vulnerable to being spirited away into camps; the U.S. estimate of detainees is already more than double that confirmed by the U.N. back in September, at nearly 3 million. And it’s evidence that as Trump taps bipartisan frustration with how Washington has previously handled China’s relations with the U.S., encouraging an economic bond responsible for massive job losses stateside, he’s ignoring the fundamental miscalculation: the bet that China would ultimately adopt American-style norms about trade, fair business practices and, crucially, human rights.
To treat the trade dispute as separate from Beijing’s latest and most advanced authoritarian experiment ― to suggest that it can be solved first and those pesky moral questions can be tackled afterward ― is to rely on a Band-Aid as U.S. policy instead of attempting a reckoning that really makes strategic and moral sense.
“If China can keep the U.S. silent at this point … it has already won,” said Rushan Abbas of the group Campaign for Uighurs.
Abbas told HuffPost her sister went missing on Sept. 11, 2018, in what she perceives as retaliation for Abbas’ public criticism of China abroad. She believes her sister is in one of the camps. She initially expected a serious U.S. response to the crisis because of Trump’s talk of taking on China, but now worries that won’t be possible if he doesn’t tie a reduction in his tariffs on Chinese exports, which she calls “leverage,” to some kind of promise by Beijing to rein in its persecution.
“The Trump administration’s choices so far haven’t inspired a lot of confidence that it will try to help the detainees.”
The administration is already legally bound to punish Chinese officials using new human rights sanctions authority that US Congress created in 2016, according to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Trump has used those powers in dozens of other cases, and last month Menendez led a bipartisan group of close to 50 lawmakers in a letter chiding cabinet members for “the administration’s failure so far” to use them on China.
“The Chinese government needs to understand that there will be serious consequences if they continue this brutal campaign of repression. At the same time, the Trump administration must make up its mind about upholding America’s values — and whether they can be disposed of as a negotiating tactic for a trade deal,” Menendez wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Advocates aren’t suggesting the global economic pain of the trade war should continue until the last camp closes. But they note that Trump could take a range of steps to show that the U.S. sees tackling China’s growing oppressiveness as vital to recalibrating the way the two countries interact. He could publicly endorse U.N. calls for independent inspections of the camps, rally American allies to present a united front against the detentions and address their general skepticism of his China policy or follow his announcement of expanded tariffs with one of targeted sanctions. Most of his rivals in the 2020 Democratic field have already said they see rights concerns as important in negotiations with Beijing even as they agree with some elements of his approach ― for now, the president is an outlier.
China’s communist party has for decades mistreated Muslim minority citizens, particularly members of the 10-million-strong Uighur ethnic group, as potential threats to national cohesion and stability. Following ethnic riots in 2009 and terror attacks, notably in 2013, Beijing committed to mass suppression, relying on policies like banning many Islamic names, placing security checkpoints every few yards in Muslim-heavy areas and assigning officials to live in families’ homes, all the while echoing Western fear-mongering about Islam. Since 2017, soon after an official named Chen Quanguo took over the northwestern region known as Xinjiang that has historically been home to the Uighurs and other Muslim communities like Kazakhs, China has used mass incarceration as its preferred tactic. Rights groups say detainees are subjected to ideological indoctrination and brutal treatment that has left some attempting suicide, and some camps are now sites of forced labor.
The Trump administration’s choices so far haven’t inspired a lot of confidence that it will try to help the detainees. On April 12, Politico revealed that the White House surprised the State Department by blocking human rights lawyer Gay McDougall ― one of the experts whose confirmation of the figure of 1 million Uighur detainees in August sparked an international firestorm ― from being renominated to a top U.N. committee. In December, Trump was expected to announce human rights sanctions, according to Foreign Policy, after his aides led activists to believe they would be coming.
Trump aides now suggest the trade war could even stretch into 2020 as part of his reelection strategy, according to Axios. If the idea is to hold off on an ultimate decision about using punitive sanctions for China’s treatment of the Uighurs until an economic deal is reached, “it could break either way,” said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. There’s the risk that the euphoria of a honeymoon period ― and Trump’s desire to show voters he got concessions from China ― will cause even more prevarication.
The main U.S. push presently is rhetorical. Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both publicly condemned the Chinese policy and administration officials have repeatedly highlighted it, including in a special session they staged in March on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council ― a notable step, given that Trump has pulled the U.S. from the body itself. The crisis “shocks the conscience and truly has mobilized our foreign affairs apparatus,” Louisa Greve of the Uyghur Human Rights Project said.
Richardson believes “unapologetic public advocacy” is key and has worked with Beijing before when U.S. criticism helped spur the release of feminist activists in 2015 and when German advocacy helped end the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiabao’s widow.
But given that the Trump administration has the expanded sanctions power available, that China appears to feel ready to make some concessions and that the president himself is a poor beacon for moral leadership, activists want more.
Trump’s “own individual credibility on these matters is at best suspect ... that’s why something like sanctions that has real and lasting consequences are much more effective ― it raises the price both for individuals and for the government they represent for their conduct,” Richardson said. “Until China pays an actual price for what it is doing in Xinjiang, it’s simply not going to stop.”
With China angering the human rights community by ramping up efforts to justify its policy as an altruistic campaign of job training ― despite the fact that many detainees are, like Abbas’ medical doctor sister, already qualified ― along with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a traditional deadline for announcing sanctions approaching in June, policymakers are going to keep hearing arguments like that. It’ll be hard for them to square arguments for caution, rooted in economics or anything else, with the gigantic stakes that the Uighurs’ supporters plan to continue highlighting.
“China’s going to use mass surveillance and its police state for far more than what’s happening in the concentration camps,” Abbas said. “What the Uighur people are facing today is beyond freedom of speech or freedom of expression or freedom of religion. Now it’s about crimes against humanity and it’s about the right to life. What China’s doing challenges basic integrity, democracy and the freedom of the world.”