Foreign Affairs

Made in China: Dilemma of Detainment Camps

Over a million Uighur Muslims are being detained in camps near Xinjiang, China. Last November, official Chinese documents were leaked to multiple media sources detailing the detention and “re-education” of minority Muslim groups such as the Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Some sources have called the detention the “worst and most neglected humanitarian crisis of the past 10 years”. For a statement with such horrific implications, many on media sites have noted the lack of resistance from top countries such as France, Germany, Turkey, and Malaysia — a silence that some credit to China’s immense economic influence. China’s treatment of this ethnic group seems to stem from a larger concern of religious intolerance. 

Tensions began to rise after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. The Cultural Revolution brought the ethnic and religious hostilities to a head as mosques were destroyed, copies of the Quran were burned, and Muslims were forbidden from going on hajj. After 1976 and the death of Founder Mao Zedong, tensions eased slightly. However, those tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese reemerged in 2009, after an outbreak of rioting in Urumqi. Many Uighurs resented rule by the Chinese Communist Party, which wanted control over the oil-rich area of Xinjiang. Clashes with the police began over a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women. This led to increasing restrictions on Muslim minorities in China, which brings us to our current situation.

The sentiment of Islamophobia is outlined by Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, who, according to the New York Times, “likened Islamic extremism… to a virus-like contagion…” and declared that addressing it would require a period of painful, interventionary treatment.” Former detainees have spoken about their “treatment” in these camps. They describe mandatory classes in which detainees must recite communist slogans and sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party. Failure to quickly learn these lessons results in beatings and food deprivation. They have also told stories about the use of stress positions, cold cells, and sleep deprivation to enforce conformity. Others even report torture and sexual abuse. The common theme of these reports involves forcing detainees to renounce Islam and embrace the Chinese Communist Party. Prayer is forbidden, and many are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of Muslim teachings. 

On December 4, 2018, Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby was invited to testify on the human rights situation in China before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to his report, Chinese authorities assert that these camps are “vocational education centers” designed to help young, unemployed people in Xinjiang learn job and language skills despite the fact that many detained Uighurs are already professionals in their field. Outside the camp, life for Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is described as “an open-air prison”. Families are forced to accept communist officials into their homes. Thousands of mosques have been destroyed, and those that remain open are guarded and monitored closely. The report continues to detail that Muslim minorities are not the only targets of these camps. The list continues to include Tibetan Buddhists, unregistered Protestant “house churches” like the Zion Church, lawyers, human rights advocates, students, activists, and journalists. 

Many back in the United States and across the world have reacted with outrage to these reports. For all these reports of atrocities, what will the United States do to help? The Busby testimony reports that the current strategy is to focus on funding existing programs and “… seeking out reformers and activists who are already having success advocating for and protecting the rights of their fellow citizens, and giving them the tools and support they need to deepen and expand their impact.” The testimony also admits that the situation is “highly restrained” due to China’s crackdown on the mentioned human rights groups. 

Others in the House of Representatives have approved of a bill requiring the Trump administration to condemn abuses against Muslims and call for the closure of these camps. The bill recommends that the “President should consider imposing sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and work closely with the United Nations or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to advocate the rights of the Uighurs. The bill also calls the policy of the United States to “…engage all appropriate instruments of United States influence to combat gross violations of human rights.”

Chinese authorities have reacted in anger to the motion, causing some officials to question the future of a trade deal with China if the bill passes. After the bill’s passage, a spokesman from the Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, stated that it “… deliberately smears the human rights condition in Xinjiang, slanders China’s efforts in deradicalization and counterterrorism and viciously attacks the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy.” 

Some, such as Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, expresses caution at the idea of interference: “When our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs,” Massie explained on Twitter. This invites a new question to the table: is it ever justified to intervene in the affairs of other countries? 

It’s a difficult question to answer. Some believe that the United States should withdraw from its current position as watchdog over the world and take a more isolationist stance in order to focus on its internal issues. Past failures like Iraq and Afghanistan should teach us that intervention could lead to dangerous extremist factions taking authority. Others believe that the United States should interfere if there is a moral cause for intervention. Our position of power and wealth grants us the resources and the clout to make a positive change around the world. 

Experts have weighed in on this dilemma. David Phillips is a former senior adviser to the United States Department of State and to the United Nations. Phillips’ novel, “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention,” suggests a basis for when to intervene on the international scale, based on the lessons learned after NATO’s attack in Yugoslavia. In an interview with PassBlue, Phillips explains, “The only way you can mobilize international support for military action is by demonstrating that you have run the course of diplomatic options… The idea is to try to convince a repressive regime into changing its behavior and use military action as a last resort.” 

Furthermore, when the interviewer asked if moral judgment or national interests typically dominated the United States’ reaction on international policy, Phillips replied, “We have a sense of outrage as freedom-loving people when innocent victims are slaughtered. But it is clear that’s not the sole criteria. If it were, the US would have sent troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where five million people have been killed… so ultimately it comes down to national interest.” 

And, it appears that it will come down to national concerns. In the midst of Trump’s negotiations about a trade deal with China last year, a New York Times article commented, “In the fall, the United States was on the verge of imposing sanctions on top Chinese individuals and companies but pulled back after some administration officials said doing so would jeopardize trade talks with Beijing, according to three American officials.”

The trade deals with China pose a complication to the situation. If the United States refuses to challenge China due to its interests in making profit, it seems unlikely that the human rights issue in China will subside. Perhaps this may lead to a future in which the United States steps down from its former role as a watchdog and relinquishes its former responsibilities to other countries. 

However, is it truly better to consider the commercial needs of the United States above the humanitarian needs of a foreign nation’s minority group? Arguably, it lies within the lines of the first argument — the United States interferes in the matters of other countries too often, and it should focus on its own interests and secure its citizens’ welfare. On the other hand, it seems callous to prioritize a commercial compact over the lives of millions of humans. Moreover, shoving international responsibility onto another agency without abiding by its decisions may be deemed even worse. 

With the noted absence of resistance from countries like France and Germany, this humanitarian crisis could worsen, and our moral responsibility will be forgotten in the midst of our national interests. And as before, the United States will find itself torn between its hunger for consumer consumption and its demonstrated interest in virtues like freedom and justice. The main problem remains to be our political responsibility in the face of human suffering — how many lives will suffer before we make a decision either way? 

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