Foreign Affairs

What Biden Can Do for the Uighurs

“They say people are released, but in my opinion everyone who leaves the camps is finished. Their goal is to destroy everyone and everybody knows it.”Tursunay Ziawudun, survivor of Xinjiang internment camps

Mass systematic rape is the latest in a long list of atrocities that China has commited against the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang. In recent years, the Uighur people have suffered mass surveillance, internment, cultural cleansing, and forced sterilizations and abortions. The Chinese government claims these measures — prompted by a 2014 terrorist attack by Xinjiang separatists — combat “extremism.” However, critics describe the campaign as the forced “Sinicization” of ethnic minorities in the northwestern periphery. A legal opinion recently published in the U.K. concludes there is a “very credible case” that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uighurs.

Leaked footage and images from internment camps and testimonies from Uighurs who have fled Xinjiang are being picked up by major news outlets and circulated around social media. Many governments have condemned China’s actions, especially with the recent evidence of sexual abuse. However, little concrete action has been taken to address this crisis given the fact that China has remained undaunted in intensifying its crackdown in Xinjiang.

In recent weeks, President Biden’s team has been hard at work creating a comprehensive China policy, addressing security and economic issues. On the campaign trail, he alluded to placing human rights back at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. The Uighur question is a prime opportunity for him to prove he is serious about this return to a values based approach. Here are three ways the Biden administration can address the Uighur genocide.

Trump Era Continuity

For all its foreign policy blunders and confusion, the Trump administration did admittedly leave many pro-Uighur policies behind for Biden. Trump did not emphasize human rights when dealing with China, allegedly encouraging Chinese President Xi Jinping to detain Uighurs. Despite this, the combative nature of his administration with China caught up to the issue eventually. 

Under Trump, the U.S. advised businesses to evaluate supply chains for links to forced labor from Uighurs and banned certain Xinjiang agricultural products. As well, the Treasury Department passed targeted sanctions on officials and entities connected to Xinjiang, and the State Department explicitly accused China of genocide.

Biden need only keep the pressure up. In particular, he should keep certain Chinese tech companies, like Huawei and Megwii, on the “Entity List,” thus restricting U.S. companies from exporting components to them. This would help ensure American businesses do not support the proliferation of surveillance tech and identification software employed in Xinjiang against the Uighurs.

He should also support congressional action. Helping the Uighurs is a cause with (rare) bipartisan support, meaning the White House has the ability to enact serious change to address the issue. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would ban the import of Xinjiang products unless it can be proven that they are not sourced from forced labor. Biden should press both chambers to swiftly approve the legislation and then write it into law himself.

Expanding sanctions would be a bold next step. While many political elites in China have a majority of their interests and wealth at home, targeting their families and close connections, who may want to study or invest in the U.S., could be effective. Given that orders for Uighur repression seem to have come from Xi himself, sanctions could even be extended to senior Politburo and party officials in general. Such an escalation — especially one so personal — would be unprecedented, but would solidify Biden’s position and possibly empower other nations to pressure China themselves.

Team Effort: A Multilateral Approach

A shift from Trump era policies is to make use of multilateral pressure. Trump era bilateralism was ineffective with China; indeed, his unilateral contractual approach to the world has yielded mixed results. Biden has already made a step in the right direction by promising to re-engage our allies abroad to solve problems that unilateral action cannot. 

Since Biden’s inauguration, his officials have been meeting with their Asian counterparts nonstop about policy to counter a rising China. Some in the region can follow Washington’s lead — Japan has looked at severing supply chains linked to Xinjiang. However, given China’s military and economic clout in the Indo-Pacific, it would be a tough ask to get equivalent sanctions or trade action from other regional partners. Their support would best be fielded in international organizations, namely through voting at the United Nations to condemn China’s actions and to send an international independent investigation into Xinjiang. 

European partners have the added moral imperative to support the U.S. in decrying China’s abuses. They, along with Japan, have already taken action at the United Nations. However, more can be done, especially on the economic side. For instance, Bidesn should implore the European Union to renegotiate a recent trade deal with China to include protections for human rights before ratification. 

A New ‘Open Door Policy’

For all the force that grandstanding economic and political threats hold, they are worthless if the U.S. does nothing to help the individual Uighurs affected. While Trump’s adversarial China policy eventually led to pro-Uighur actions, his refugee policy directly hurt those who his administration claimed to protect. By severely decreasing the refugee cap and narrowing eligibility, Trump limited the amount of Uighurs able to claim asylum and slowed down those who did manage to get into the system.

Biden is working to increase the refugee cap for this fiscal year to 125,000 from the 15,000 Trump set. It is a dramatic and very unpopular policy reversal. Yet, this move coupled with increased resources to the asylum system is a necessary change to get those who are able to leave Xinjiang to safety. A provision specifically expediting Uighur claims may help resolve some backlash. Additionally, providing economic and psychological support to existing Uighur communities in the U.S. would help facilitate the adoption of refugees.

The World Watches

In the first call between Xi and Biden, Xi stressed that outright conflict between the two Pacific powers would be catastrophic for all. There is truth to this; the U.S.-China bilateral relationship must be repaired after the damage Trump caused by bringing his “America First” nationalism to trade and diplomacy. Cooperation with China is required to address a host of global issues, ranging from climate change to North Korea.

Yet, Biden will also not have any luck repeating Obama era restraint. China will be the greatest foreign policy challenge to the U.S. in the coming years. The Asian superpower has reached new levels of aggression and draconian policy that necessitate a firm stance. Moreover, the plight of the Uighurs adds to the urgency, as it is too important of a moral problem to trade for progress in other areas.
Many have described the repression of the Uighurs as the most organized, large scale destruction of a people since the Holocaust. The wider international response will ultimately echo the position the U.S. takes on the issue. The policy proposals discussed here — continuing certain Trump policies, re-engaging allies, and altering refugee policy — are not exhaustive, but they are a good start. This horror will likely require action long after Biden’s administration, but he will be remembered for his part in fighting this crime against humanity if he has the strength to do so.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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2 replies »

  1. I can imagine that, if allied securely, a large enough number of world nations (e.g. Canada) likely could combine their resources and go without the China bully-nation trade/investment connection they all would prefer to abandon, and instead trade necessary goods and services between themselves.

    Yet, perhaps such an alliance has already been proposed, discussed but rejected due to Chinese government strategists knowing how to ‘divide and conquer’ potential alliance nations by using door-wedge economic/political leverage custom made for each nation (including us).


  2. Before any nation might effectively challenge the abysmal human right record of China — a mighty military nation with almost 1.5 billion consumers — the former first must have a significant trade-export/import bargaining chip.

    I can imagine that a large enough number of world nations securely allied, however, likely could combine their resources and go without the usual China bully-nation trade/investment connection they’d all prefer to abandon, instead trading necessary goods and services between themselves (and perhaps other, non-allied countries not beholden to China).

    Yet, maybe such an alliance has already been proposed and discussed but rejected (behind closed doors) due to Chinese government strategists knowing how to ‘divide and conquer’ potential alliance nations by using door-wedge economic/political leverage custom-made for each nation.

    Each nation placing its own unbending bottom-line interests first may always be its, and therefore collectively our, Achilles’ heel to be exploited by huge-market nations like China.


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