Xinjiang’s Uyghurs deserve independence but China’s president should face sanctions for human rights abuses
Indonesian Muslims demonstrate in Banda Aceh, Aceh province on Dec. 21 to denounce the Chinese government’s policy on Uyghur Muslims. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)
China’s Xinjiang operations include illegal detentions of one to three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, torture, rape, colonialism, assimilationist policies and ethnic cleansing.China has grossly violated its duty of care for the Muslims of Xinjiang and its own constitution of 1982. It has violated the United Nations Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has acted with impunity and lied throughout to cover up its crimes.The international community has a responsibility to its fellow human beings in Xinjiang and should take action against those perpetrating these injustices, including against the man ultimately responsible, China’s President Xi Jinping.China has tried to cover up its mass detention camps by first denying their existence and then, when confronted with the evidence, switching its story to their being “re-education” facilities. When that was criticized, the names of the camps changed again to “vocational” facilities.Human rights advocates are nearly unanimous in accusing China of deception about the Xinjiang ethnocide. Andrea Worden, who was previously senior counsel at the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said that “by presenting a depraved defense [at the U.N.] of its ‘vocational training centers’ in Xinjiang, [China] demonstrated that it was wholly unconcerned with civil and political rights and the truth.”
Terri Marsh, director of the Human Rights Law Foundation, said China “has responded through a web of lies that bend the meaning of terms, defining forced conversion through torture as a benign form of education, or through a web of denials that they and everyone else know to be untrue.”She wrote in an email: “When, for example, China says it does not torture anyone, where the torture of dissidents has been documented by the survivors themselves, eye witnesses, U.N. special rapporteurs and other experts, it makes clear that it cares not for anyone’s right to be free from torture, for anything that could remotely be designated a human right or for the truth.”
Louisa Greve, director of external affairs at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, wrote in an email that “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] delegation also managed to pressure the [U.N.] High Commissioner’s Office to ignore its own procedures for the November UPR [universal periodic review] and to remove the reports submitted by my organization and a handful of others until it was too late for anyone to read them.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, also points to China’s deceit on human rights issues, including at the U.N. and on Uyghur issues. “Xi’s government is indisputably devoting resources to undermining U.N. human rights mechanisms, with tactics ranging from manipulating obscure bodies to blocking the participation of activists and organizations Beijing dislikes, intimidating U.N. staff members and experts to dial back criticisms of China, advancing anti-rights resolutions, or simply lying gratuitously about its own human rights record to the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
Sanction Xi Jinping
Human rights criticism of China at U.N. reviews and elsewhere increases public pressure on Xi Jinping to act more reasonably in Xinjiang, but we should go further than just speech. Targeted sanctions, including through the Magnitsky Act in the U.S., are needed against those individuals most responsible for the continuing human rights abuses. Proposed human rights legislation that focuses on Xinjiang was sponsored last November by Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
The individuals who should be sanctioned include Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo and other leaders of the ethnocide, who are rightly named in the legislation as potential targets of sanctions. But as political scientist June Teufel Dreyer argues, even if sanctioned, “there are more Chen Quanguo types who will take his place. Presumably the persecution will continue, as even if one believes that ‘name and shame’ can humiliate Chen and his successors, we’ve at best swatted flies while tiger Xi continues with his depredations.”
As many are now considering, the sanctions must go beyond Chen Quanguo to those whom he seeks to please in Beijing. These should include Xi Jinping, but the president is not named in the legislation proposed by Rubio and Menendez.The U.S. would of course experience blowback from sanctioning a head of state as powerful as Xi. Last November, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, threatened proportional retaliation if sanctions were imposed on Chinese leaders for their human rights abuses.“Certainly it would be good to apply the Magnitsky Act to Chen Quanguo,” said Professor Jerome Cohen, faculty director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. “Of course, in principle, since we know Xi Jinping is the top leader for such important questions as repression in Xinjiang, the act should also be applied to him, but for practical reasons that seems a pipedream.”
Sanctioning Xi could even be counterproductive, according to Charles Parton, who spent 22 years as a British diplomat focused on China.“It is inconceivable that the policy of targeting the Falun Gong and of setting up concentration camps in Xinjiang was not approved at the highest level — the politburo standing committee,” he said. “So are China’s top officials to be sanctioned? I am not happy in saying it, but I am not sure that measures like the Magnitsky Act are the way forward if applied to leaders of countries. International relations would gum up pretty rapidly and the eventual results of that would be highly deleterious, conceivably beyond the appallingness of one million Uyghurs locked up.”
If Xi threatens war in the nuclear era against countries that might sanction him for human rights abuses, or even if there is a fear among international diplomats of crossing him lest it lead to war, it should be crystal clear that he is a bad actor that is corrupting the post-World War II system that seeks to promote human rights, democracy and the sovereignty of nations.As a bad actor who seeks to corrupt the global system, he should at the very least be ostracized from the international community. To avoid war, that ostracization should perhaps be gradual, but the ostracization ought to occur nonetheless.
The international community must defend itself and its values. Through the Magnitsky Act or some other means, Xi and the rest of those responsible for human rights abuses in China should be barred from international travel and commerce.Might that gum up international relations with China? Perhaps it would, and perhaps that would for the present be an improvement. U.S. President Donald Trump is gumming up China’s international trade through tariffs. That has the goal of coercing China into not only fairer trade relations but also into a more cooperative approach to international security issues — for example, on North Korea, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Surely Trump would appreciate better human rights for the Uyghurs to sweeten the deal. International relations take place in the context of an anarchistic international system, and when international norms cannot be relied upon to defend human rights and democracy, force must be. In those cases, as counseled by Professor Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College, the risk of war must be accepted.Sanctioning all CCP leaders responsible for China’s egregious human rights abuses is a moral imperative and, by taking the high road, the U.S. and allies reinforce their reputations as defenders of democracy and human rights.
Independence for Xinjiang
In the apparent complexity of the Xinjiang issue, we should not lose sight of five simple truths. First, it is wrong to detain people for their religion, culture or language. Second, when treated decently, people do not revolt or secede. Third, those who force people into violence through abuse are bad actors. Fourth, persistent bad actors should by sanctions be removed from the body politic, including the global body politic. Fifth, when subject to persistent attempts at ethnocide, minority ethnicities deserve the support of countries worldwide in creating an independent state.
The troubles in Xinjiang are entirely of China’s making, and China needs to quickly rectify the situation by following the moderate prescriptions of compromise, long advocated by courageous Chinese citizens such as Ilham Tohti and Wang Lixiong.China would be prudent to unwind the camps, pay restitution to the victims, allow for increased cultural and religious autonomy in the area, and limit further Han Chinese migration into southern Xinjiang. The Muslims of Xinjiang should be guaranteed true religious freedom and Xinjiang should be treated as a “cultural protection zone.”
The CCP should break the cycle of violence in Xinjiang by de-escalating conflict, not using securitization as punishment for Uyghur violence. The latter strategy leads to more Uyghur violence and ever more securitization that ratchets towards permanent mass detention, genocide, total assimilation or ethnocide. All these ends are contrary to human rights and international law. That cycle of violence and repression must end.
Gulbahar Jelil is a Uyghur woman with Kazakh nationality who China detained in crowded conditions for over a year. She was forced to sleep on concrete, malnourished and given a shower only once a week. Showers were for only a couple of minutes each, with just a thirtieth of a bar of soap — insufficient to stop the spread of infection. Jelil escaped to Turkey, where in between sobs in January she told Al Jazeera: “The whole world should stand up against this.”Relaxing China’s grip after such persistent, recent and thorough attempts to grind the culture out of a people in Xinjiang may heighten the immediate risk of secession. But it is the right thing to do and is the cost that the CCP must pay for having brought down its heavy hand against the human rights of a people who, since they were occupied by the CCP in 1949, are owed the duty of the party’s care.
If the people of Xinjiang want independence, that is the price China will have to pay for its past abuses. Every ethnicity on earth deserves the liberty to develop its own culture, language and religion. When the state does not afford an ethnicity this universal right of freedom, that state should relinquish territory so that people may form their own republic.That moment when Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang should have the right to choose their future has now been reached and should be recognized by countries worldwide, even if that choice leads to a new independent republic called East Turkestan.
This is the final article in a nine-part series on Xinjiang by Anders Corr, who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia. The other eight articles can be found by clicking here.
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