WASHINGTON, D.C. — On September 11, 2019, the U.S. Senate passed S. 178: Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, which calls on various U.S. agencies to report on the living conditions of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group in China. Now, the bill must pass the House of Representatives. S. 178 is a rebuke of the Chinese government and its ongoing human rights abuses of its Uyghur population.
That the Uyghurs face persecution and mistreatment in China is not new. In part motivated by China’s rivalry with the Soviet Union and by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s suspicion toward Islam and Uyghur traditions, the CCP adopted repressive policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) beginning in the 1960s. The CCP wanted to rid Xinjiang of Islamic and Uyghur influences, so they took steps, such as prohibiting the teaching of Islam in schools, to accomplish this goal.
In addition, the Chinese government has discouraged Uyghurs from publicly expressing their cultural identity and punishes them if they criticize the government. The CCP placed further restrictions on Islam after the fall of the USSR since this collapse was accompanied by an increased interest in religion throughout the region. The government banned Uyghurs from giving certain Muslim names to babies and from having long beards or wearing veils.
More recently, many have criticized the Chinese government for its so-called “re-education” camps. Reportedly, the Chinese have detained 1 million Uyghurs in camps, where officials force inmates to undergo attempted “brainwashing,” which includes the teaching of communist propaganda and forcing Uyghurs to praise President Xi Jinping. There have been reports of torture and waterboarding. In addition to inhumane treatment, the Chinese government has increased its surveillance of the Uyghurs through its technological advances.
Uyghur Living Conditions in Xinjiang
Besides political oppression, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang face economic and health problems, too. The economic developments of the 1990s disproportionately benefited Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang. The Uyghur population reported facing employment discrimination and maintained a higher unemployment rate than the Hans.
In Xinjiang, the GDP in Han-majority areas is far higher than in Uyghur-majority areas. In addition, less access to China’s education system further perpetuates that inequality between the Uyghurs and Han.
On the health front, the hospitals in Xinjiang lack basic medical resources, like equipment and medicine. Most of the doctors in Xinjiang are Han and do not speak much Turkic. Since 1961, the Chinese have conducted upwards of 40 nuclear tests in the region, which have caused ecological contamination and exposed the local Uyghur population to dangerous radiation, increased cancer rates and infant deformities.
Furthermore, the Chinese government instituted a birth control policy specifically for the Uyghurs, which goes against their religious beliefs. Forced sterilization is common in the region, according to some reports.
Senate and House Bills
In response to China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority, the U.S. Senate passed S. 178: Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019. Specifically, the bill directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, FBI, the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the State Department to report to Congress on topics relevant to their department. For instance, the Office of the DNI will report on any security threats related to the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, how frequently foreign governments “forcibly return” Uyghur refugees to China, and “the development or transfer of technology that facilitates mass internment and surveillance.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the 23-page bipartisan bill and 44 other Senators (25D, 17R, 2I) co-sponsored it, including multiple presidential candidates. S.178 is an updated version of S. 3622 from the 115th Congress.
For the bill to become law, it must now pass the House with the same wording as the Senate bill and then the President must sign it. However, the last action the House took on the bill was referring it to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on March 4, 2019. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, (R-NJ-4) originally introduced the bill, H.R.649, in the House on Jan. 17 2019, after which it was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Intelligence (Permanent Select) Committee and Judiciary Committees.
According to Skopos Labs, the bill has only a 4 percent chance of becoming law due to the “overall text of the bill,” though this prediction is based on correlation, not causation. Still, Skopos Labs predicts that one legal provision in the bill will likely be enacted.
In the Xinjiang region of China, the Chinese government has been violating Uyghur human rights for years and this is not the first time U.S. Congress has discussed a U.S. response. Nevertheless, S. 178: Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 is one way to show U.S. support for the Uyghurs and address the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. Now, it is up to the House to pass the bill.
– Sarah Frazer