U.S. China Policy Must Confront the Genocide in Xinjiang First
Beijing’s actions demand a rethinking of failed engagement.
Ekpar Asat is a Uighur philanthropist and cutting-edge entrepreneur who became a household name among Uighurs after establishing and successfully running a multifaceted media platform for the community in western China. He is also the brother of one of the authors of this article, who knows firsthand his compassion and determination. He worked tirelessly to build bridges between all the ethnic groups in the region and the local government. The Xinjiang government itself extolled him as a bright star in the tech world and a positive force for humanity. Soon, his reputation landed him international recognition as a successful innovative entrepreneur and peacebuilder.
But in April 2016, Asat was forcibly disappeared within weeks of returning from the United States on a premier exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), unlike the Han members of his IVLP cohort, who returned to their ordinary lives. He’s currently presumed to be held in one of the infamous internment camps in Xinjiang without access to anyone, including his family—one victim among millions of government atrocities that the United States have just designated a genocide.
For 80 years, IVLP has invited acclaimed professionals from around the world to visit the United States to engage in cultural and professional exchanges and cultivate future diplomatic ties with their counterparts. The program serves as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in forming strong relationships with global partners. Participants draw on their experience in the United States to implement innovative practices back home, informed by fundamental U.S. values, including liberal democracy, human rights, the rule of law, diversity, civic diplomacy, and international cooperation. In disappearing Asat, the only Uighur member of the China delegation, China attacked these values at the heart of IVLP, U.S. foreign policy, and values of engagement.
Over the past two decades, U.S. foreign policy toward China has been based on programs like IVLP, the hope that economic integration would lead to democratic reforms. But instead of reform, an economically prosperous China has built the largest network of internment camps since the Holocaust, the world’s most intrusive police state, and is applying new draconian policies in Hong Kong.
The Biden administration and a new U.S. Congress must emerge from this chaotic election season with a coherent foreign-policy strategy toward China. Incoming U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rightly characterizes America’s place in the world as defined by “leadership, cooperation, and democracy.” But these very values are being challenged by China as it continues to embrace an opposing vision of the world and is increasingly exporting its authoritarian model across the globe—while openly committing genocide. The United States, by law, recognizes that genocide and atrocities, wherever they occur, constitute threats to national and international security. Recognition of these threats must therefore be at the forefront of a new U.S. policy toward China.
The U.S. recognition of the genocide is not purely symbolic. It entails obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent and punish the crime, and the Biden administration must now take concrete action to that end together with U.S. allies.
Economic engagement and well-meaning cooperation efforts hoped to make China more democratic but have instead ended up empowering its efforts to spread and protect authoritarianism and repression. China is actively seeking to rewrite the rules of the United Nations to shield itself and its allies against accountability for atrocities within their borders, by rejecting what it deems “so-called universal human rights.”
At the U.N., activists and staff accuse China of harassment and intimidation, and an increasing number of countries are folding under pressure from Beijing to praise or sanitize its human rights record. For instance, at the U.N. Human Rights Council, China rallied 37 countries to praise its genocidal policies in Xinjiang as advancing the “international human rights cause” and then 54 nations to categorize the policies as “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” China then secured reelection to the Human Rights Council with 139 votes.
The U.N. is hardly the only international institution increasingly beholden to the Chinese government. Beijing effectively lobbied the World Health Organization (WHO) to delay the declaration of COVID-19 as an international emergency while accepting Beijing’s denial of human-to-human transmission early on, drew praise from WHO for its handling of the pandemic, and blocked any independent investigation into the virus’s origins up until today. China continues to successfully exert pressure on WHO and other international organizations, including the U.N. and Interpol.
China openly flouts Interpol’s Red Notice system, used to issue requests for arrest warrants against international criminals, which is increasingly abused by authoritarian governments to target human rights defenders, dissidents, and political opponents. An upcoming Chinese state-backed political propaganda film will even showcase China’s abuse of the Red Notice system, further undermining the organization’s international mandate.
Moreover, the China-led regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization serves as a vehicle to pressure member states into cooperation with China on security under the pretext of fighting separatism and extremism and to thereby aid and abet China to commit unrestrained atrocities against Turkic ethnic groups. China is not only exploiting the global trading system, as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has recognized, but actively stymies the objectives of global health and human rights institutions while paying far below its fair share, exercising malign influence therein, and undermining their global integrity.
China is further expanding its global influence through its increasing capability and national strength in areas concerning artificial intelligence and sensitive 5G technology, which have a direct impact on national security. As the United States retreated from the international stage, China has increasingly sought technological dominance in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and developing countries, bolstering their dependence on China. For example, China, poised to become a major driver in AI, is supplying AI surveillance technology through Chinese companies to at least 63 countries—more than half of which are also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, making them more dependent on China and ceding their sovereignty in the process.
With China sitting on the U.N. Security Council and the prospect of holding China accountable in an international forum a distant possibility, the United States should focus its efforts on domestic legislation and executive actions. The administration should not discount positive policy decisions made by the previous administration simply because they were decided under Donald Trump’s tenure, including sanctioning the Chinese officials and entities responsible for the genocide in Xinjiang and companies for profiting off forced labor.
The Biden administration should broaden the parameters of sanctions and include the other chief architects of the mass atrocities following the designation of genocide. While the Trump administration hinged its response to the atrocities in Xinjiang, in part, on trade considerations, the Biden administration must confront genocide with the coherence and clarity that a threat to national security and the international order so requires.
The Biden administration should also work with Congress to swiftly pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to block products made with forced Uighur labor from entering the United States and global markets, ensure transparency in global supply chains, and strengthen enforcement mechanisms to cease and prevent American companies and consumers from becoming complicit. As multinational corporations seek to lobby Congress to water down such legislation, which passed the House with a near-unanimous 406-3 vote, the Senate and administration must send an unequivocal message that the United States will not tolerate forced labor within its supply chains.
The United States’ success in countering China’s aggression and sustaining the rules-based order relies on the strength of its alliances and depth of its coalition building. The administration should particularly work toward rebuilding trust with Middle Eastern countries—many of which have defended China’s repression at the U.N. These relationships were undermined by decades of U.S.-led wars in the region and Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, giving China the space to build autocratic alliances with Middle Eastern elites. The administration should also push its European partners to veto the EU-China investment agreement, a deal already being questioned due to its turning a blind eye to the widespread use of forced labor.
Asat embodies a U.S.-China relationship once premised on mutual cooperation for the betterment of the world. Asat’s forced disappearance, and the Uighur genocide, exposes China’s intentions of destroying any such cooperation and creating an opposing value system. Minorities in China, including Tibetans, Mongols, and Hong Kongers, are similarly watching their distinct identities disappear under a government that leaves no room for dissent or any expression of culture, language, or belonging other than a pure Chinese nation-race subservient to Xi Jinping.
The Biden administration and leadership must lead the United States onto the international stage, where it has been absent over the past four years. In the spirit of IVLP, U.S. foreign policy should prioritize atrocity prevention and fundamental human rights in its engagement with China and stand up for the oppressed in authoritarian countries whether in China or elsewhere, lest in the words of the outspoken German pastor Martin Niemöller, who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps, there will be “no one left to speak for me.”
Rayhan Asat is a lawyer, the president of the American Turkic International Lawyers Association, and sister of Ekpar Asat.
Yonah Diamond is legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.