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As China Cracks Down on Uighurs, a Uighur American Joins the White House

Trump’s new China hand could be a sticking point in talks with Beijing.

Uighurs demonstrate in front of the White House in Washington on July 28, 2009.
Uighurs demonstrate in front of the White House in Washington on July 28, 2009. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has appointed a Uighur American academic as director for China at the National Security Council in a symbolic move that could impact talks—and relations—between the two countries. 

Current and former U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that Elnigar Iltebir, a Harvard Kennedy School-educated academic and daughter of a prominent Uighur intellectual and journalist, was recently appointed to the White House post. Under the U.S. President Donald Trump, there has been a trend of avoiding public announcements regarding National Security Council appointments.

In her role, Iltebir will be tasked with helping to manage China policy, one of the most critical priorities for the Trump administration, including issues related to trade, military, and human rights. Iltebir’s family hails from the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of waging a cultural genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs.

“The possibility that there could be a Uighur negotiating opposite Chinese government officials is really powerful,” said Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International.

In recent years, Beijing has detained between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minorities in internment camps, according to estimates from the U.S. State Department, citing media and human rights watchdogs. Those interned have reportedly been subjected to prolonged detention without trial, torture, and other forms of abuse. Chinese authorities have also destroyed dozens of mosques in the Xinjiang region, where the Muslim minority remains heavily repressed, all in the name of allegedly combating religious extremism. 

Iltebir’s LinkedIn page shows that she attended George Washington University and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government before receiving her Ph.D. in International Security and Economic Policy from the University of Maryland in 2015. Iltebir did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and the NSC declined to comment. 

While the appointment of a person of Uighur origin brings important diversity and insight to the NSC, the real test, said Bencosme, would be if the administration followed through with policies to aid the Uighur community. That includes “accountability of Chinese officials, or raising at the highest levels what’s happening in Xinjiang, or supporting civil society that’s been harassed by Chinese officials,” he said. 

Top Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly condemned the Chinese government over the practice. “China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time; it is truly the stain of the century,” Pompeo said of China’s treatment of Uighurs at a conference on religious freedom last month. 

But the Trump administration has also sidelined the issue for other policy priorities with Beijing. Late last year, the administration set aside plans to impose sanctions on China to avoid disrupting sensitive high-level trade talks between the two countries. 

In June, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was slated to announce sanctions on Chinese surveillance companies involved in human rights abuses, but Bloomberg reported that the speech was put on ice by Trump to avoid upsetting his Chinese counterpart ahead of their meeting at the G-20 summit later that month. 

Trump made what appeared to be his first public remarks on China’s treatment of the Uighurs last month in a meeting with victims of religious persecution from several countries. When Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a prominent Uighur scholar, told the president that she had not seen her father since 2013 and that between 1 million to 3 million people were being held in what she described as concentration camps, Trump responded, “Where is that? Where is that in China?” He later added that it was “tough stuff” for the families whose relatives have disappeared in Xinjiang. 

The Chinese government denies charges of mass detention and insists the camps are training and education centers aimed in part at tackling the rise of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2019: A previous version of this article misstated Xinjiang’s relative location in China.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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