Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 30, 2020 / 07:00 am (CNA).- In July 2019, President Donald Trump met with survivors of religious persecution at the White House.
Uyghur human rights activist Jewher Ilham told Trump about her father, Ilham Tohti, a human rights activist sentenced to life in prison in 2014 and who is one of millions detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang, China’s far northwestern province.
“Where is that? Where is that in China?” the president responded, according to the White House’s transcript of the meeting.
More recently, former National Security Advisor John Bolton alleged the president approved of the construction of internment camps in a 2019 conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Trump dismissed Bolton’s book, in which the allegations were made as “a total lie, or mostly a lie.”
“Everybody was in the room and nobody heard what Bolton heard,” Trump said of the allegations concerning the camps.
Last week, Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law. Although the new law directs the administration to take action against senior Chinese officials through the Global Magnitsky Act, including visa denials or blocking of property or financial transactions in U.S. markets, the president has not yet done so, telling Axios that “we were in the middle of a major trade deal.”.
Trump now faces growing criticism for not financially sanctioning senior Chinese officials responsible for what the Congressional China Commission says may be “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang.
China, for its part, has warned that calls for sanctions could derail its participation in “phase one” of a trade deal. So, is the administration shying away from responding to a humanitarian crisis?
The scope of the crisis in Xinjiang is immense. Chinese officials have essentially set up a police state in the region nearly three times the size of France, home to 23 million Turkic people including Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities.
Anywhere from 900,000 to 1.8 million Uyghurs are now estimated to be in the system of more than 1,300 detention camps. Survivors have reported suffering indoctrination, beatings, forced labor, and torture; Uyghur women have repored a mass campaign of forced contraception and sterilization.
But, while Trump is criticized for not playing his toughest card against a documented human rights catastrophe in China, similar criticisms could be made of previous administrations.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 remarked that while the U.S. would continue to raise human rights concerns with China, they would effectively take a backseat to economic and climate change crises. President Bill Clinton chose to decouple trade and human rights with China in 1994.
And while cutting off access to U.S. financial markets might be viewed as the strongest message that the U.S. could send to bad actors, there are still a set of actions any administration could use–and the Trump administration has put them into practice.
For instance, the U.S. has begun denying access to its markets for Chinese companies complicit in forced labor or mass surveillance in Xinjiang.
An AP investigation from December 2018 tracked clothes made at a factory inside a Xinjiang internment camp all the way to Badger Sportswear in North Carolina, which supplies uniforms for sports teams. A report of the Congressional China Commission raised suspicions that other U.S. companies, among them Adidas, Calvin Klein, Costco, Nike, and Kraft Heinz, could be either directly employing forced labor in Xinjiang or were sourcing supplies made with forced labor.
In response, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order in October for garments from Hetian Taida Apparel Co., Ltd., a textile company in Xinjiang employing forced labor. Under the order, the goods are seized and held by CBP until the company re-exports them or proves they were not tainted with forced labor.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department has listed dozens of Chinese companies and individuals on the Entity List for their connection to abuses in Xinjiang, restricting their access to U.S. exports and technology. The agency added 28 Chinese entities to the list in October, and in May listed an additional eight Chinese companies and China’s Institute of Forensic Science.
Although the U.S. hasn’t yet touched the pocket books of Xinjiang officials, the State Department in October 2019 announced visa restrictions on some of them, limiting their travel to the U.S.
On top of these trade and travel measures, administrations can also use simple diplomacy and bring global attention to abuses. In September, the U.S. co-hosted an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on “The Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang.”
According to Nury Turkel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised the Uyghur crisis more than two dozen times since last fall and he has also called it “the stain of the century.” Vice President Mike Pence brought up the mass detention of Uyghurs in front of leaders from more than 100 countries at the State Department’s religious freedom ministerial last July.
On June 19, the National Security Council called for the release of “millions of Uyghurs and other minorities arbitrarily detained in indoctrination and forced labor camps.” The State Department on June 26 mentioned the crisis in Xinjiang in its statement to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
With its diplomatic and trade measures, and Trump’s signing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law, the U.S. has certainly made clear its condemnation of the crisis in Xinjiang.
However, for bad actors on the international stage, targeted measures and words may only say so much, and they may be emboldened to consolidate their power if they feel they can get away with it.
As millions of Uyghurs continue to languish in camps, the world is still waiting to see how far Trump is willing to go in defense of human rights.