SEATTLE, Washington — Beyond its rugged mountains and vast desert basins, Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Northwest China, is home to about 11 million Turkic Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups. The region also harbors the largest humanitarian crisis in the country. Since 2017, Chinese government officials have initiated mass detention, abuse and torture toward the Uighurs. To combat the Uighur human rights crisis, the U.S. Congress has taken several measures to ensure that the Chinese government stops its oppression of the Muslim Uighurs.
Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, China
The Chinese government has placed the Uighurs in reeducation camps, officially called the Vocational Training and Education Centers by the People’s Republic of China. In these camps, Uighurs are forced to renounce their culture and religion and instead assimilate Han Chinese manners and customs.
According to the Associated Press, the Chinese government states that the purpose of these camps is to provide voluntary job training to ethnic minorities. However, classified documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2019 show that the detainees are instead being subjected to coerced labor and indoctrination of the Chinese Communist Party’s beliefs.
The Reality of the Reeducation Camps
According to the Council of Foreign Relations, Chinese officials target Uighurs because they fear that the Uighurs hold extremist and separatist Islamic values. In 2014, after visiting the Xinjian region for the first time, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a series of secret meetings to talk about the “toxicity of religious extremism.”
These meetings, which were later revealed by The New York Times in 2019 and named the “Chinese Cables,” consist of 403 documents on how the Chinese Communist Party initiated restrictions in the Xinjiang region and detained millions of Uighurs. Some of the methods that the CCP used to determine who would go to detention centers were facial recognition software, constant investigation and surveillance in the Xinjiang region and signs that the detainee practiced Islam devoutly.
According to Vice News, included in the classified documents was an eight-page handbook that detailed the camp’s conditions and how the camp should be run. The handbook stated that the Muslim minorities must attend classes that teach them Mandarin as well as Chinese law and ideologies. How well they score in these classes determines how much longer they were required to stay in the camp. Detainees are also not allowed to have contact with friends or family. Moreover, to ensure Uighurs do not escape from the camp, informants are assigned to each detainee with strict video surveillance.
If the detainees violate the rules, the camp guards would enforce strict punishments such as multiple beatings or solitary confinement. Omir Bekali, a former prisoner of the camp involved in the Uighur human rights crisis, states in Vice that “people get tortured until they are almost dead or useless.”
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act
In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials involved in human rights abuses. As a response to the Uighur human rights crisis in China, the Treasury Department announced on July 9, 2020, that the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four top Xinjiang officials connected with the reeducation camps. This sanction not only freezes the assets of those officials but also bans them from entering the United States. The Xinjian officials sanctioned include:
- Chen Quango — Quango is the current Chinese Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang autonomous region, which he was appointed to in 2016. He is also a member of the Politburo, the body of the Chinese government that makes policies. Quango is responsible for constructing the mass detention centers in 2017 and is considered as the leader behind the Uighur human rights crisis in Xinjiang.
- Zhu Hailun — Hailun is the current Deputy Party Secretary of Xinjiang. He played a key role in planning and executing the campaign against the Uighurs, working closely with Quango and performing his former duty of Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CCP from 2016 to 2019. Hailun established the policies for how the camps should be run with the goal of fighting extremism in Xinjiang.
- Huo Liujun — Liujun was the leader of the Xinjiang Party Secretary Bureau from March 2017 to 2018. During that time, he was in charge of deploying the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” an Artificial Intelligence-assisted system that collected biometric data on the Uighurs living in Xinjiang. Through this system, he tracked the Uighur’s movements and daily activities. This helped Liujun determine who was a “potential threat” to the state and who would need to be placed in the reeducation camps.
- Wang Mingshan — Mingshan is the Xinjiang Party Secretary Bureau’s current leader, a position he adopted in late 2018. He worked closely with Liujun in deploying the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the sanctions were put in place after victims from the Xinjiang camps came forward to rehash their experiences and after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the classified documents that went into further detail about the Uighur human rights crisis. This is the highest-level sanction ever placed against China.
China’s Response to US Sanctions
According to Reuters, the Chinese government announced it would take similar measures against the United States after the U.S. government placed sanctions on the four Chinese officials over the Uighur human rights crisis. A U.S. official states in Reuters that the sanctions have “a real meaning on a person’s ability to move around the world and conduct business,” and, as such, the sanctions on the Xinjiang officials are “no joke.” While Chinese authorities continue to deny that human rights abuses are occurring in Xinjiang, about 3 million Uighurs are being abused and tortured in reeducation camps to this day. The World Uighur Congress, the largest Uighur exile group, urges other countries to impose similar sanctions to end this humanitarian crisis.