Congress Splits Over How to Address LGBT Rights in China

A landmark report on human rights in China was delayed six months over a behind-the-scenes impasse on LGBTQ rights.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
A Chinese flag flies behind razor wire
A Chinese flag flies behind razor wire
A Chinese flag flies behind razor wire at a compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region on June 4, 2019. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

A major annual congressional report documenting human rights abuses in China was delayed for six months after a behind-the-scenes impasse between Democratic and Republican lawmakers over a section on LGBTQ rights, according to congressional aides and a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) issued its annual report for 2021 on Thursday, outlining in detail over 334 pages human rights abuses and rule of law violations in China. The report covered a wide span of issues, including crackdowns on freedom of expression and religious practice, human trafficking, and genocide and crimes against humanity against ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

The report is considered one of the most comprehensive overviews from the U.S. government of the human rights situation in China, and it is the basis for U.S. policy and legislation on how Washington works to hold Beijing to account on human rights.

A major annual congressional report documenting human rights abuses in China was delayed for six months after a behind-the-scenes impasse between Democratic and Republican lawmakers over a section on LGBTQ rights, according to congressional aides and a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) issued its annual report for 2021 on Thursday, outlining in detail over 334 pages human rights abuses and rule of law violations in China. The report covered a wide span of issues, including crackdowns on freedom of expression and religious practice, human trafficking, and genocide and crimes against humanity against ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

The report is considered one of the most comprehensive overviews from the U.S. government of the human rights situation in China, and it is the basis for U.S. policy and legislation on how Washington works to hold Beijing to account on human rights.

The latest report was meant to be released in October 2021, according to congressional aides and one U.S. official familiar with the matter, but its release was delayed in large part because of internal disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over how the final report should characterize China’s repression of LGBTQ rights.

The lawmakers chairing the commission, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, wanted to include a new separate section of the report focused solely on documented human rights abuses against China’s LGBTQ community and policy recommendations on how the United States should respond. Previous CECC reports had included reporting on this matter, but only under a broader section on Chinese civil society. The CECC, staffed by a small group of nonpartisan experts and researchers, had recommended to the lawmakers that they include a separate section on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.

Republican commissioners opposed the plan to change the format of the report and include a new section focused solely on the LGBTQ community, the congressional aides and the official familiar with the matter said. They argued that those repressions didn’t amount to the severity of other human rights abuses, including Beijing’s documented practice of forced abortions and forced sterilization, and the broader campaign of genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang province.

The annual report can only be released after a vote in favor of its final version by at least two-thirds of the commissioners. Republicans registered their opposition to the plan by withholding quorum for the vote, the official and aide said. A compromise was finally struck to end the impasse, where the report would include assessments on LGBTQ repression in greater detail than past reports, but not in its own separate section, according to the congressional aides.

“It was absolutely essential that we fully describe the Chinese government’s oppression of LGBTQ individuals as an integral part of this report,” Merkley said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “LGBTQ rights are human rights, and human rights are LGBTQ rights.”

Parts of the report include guidelines on leveraging the roles of athletes and media outlets during the Beijing Olympics, which took place in February, to demand improvements in human rights. Lawmakers also negotiated about language in the final report on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which added to the delay, congressional aides said.

The behind-the-scenes disputes between lawmakers over the report showcased how U.S. policy on China, long considered a bastion of bipartisanship in an increasingly divided Washington, can still be afflicted by partisan disputes.

The CECC’s annual reporting and advocacy has been behind some of the most significant pieces of legislation to come out of Washington on China in recent years, including bills on halting the import of goods produced through forced labor from Xinjiang, provisions to sanction Chinese officials involved in the genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities there, and bills that shaped the U.S. response to China’s crackdown against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The delay in its release could hamper U.S. human rights policy on China. “There’s a track record of recommendations in this report being turned into concrete action, and the longer that we delay getting it out to the world, the less opportunity we give the members to have the insights of the commission benefit policymaking and legislative processes,” said the congressional aide familiar with the matter.

The CECC includes eight senators and nine House members. Republicans on the CECC include Sens. Marco Rubio, James Lankford, Tom Cotton, and Steve Daines. The CECC is also meant to include five senior administration officials appointed by the president, but President Joe Biden has not named any appointees to the commission.

Several Republican offices did not respond to a request for comment or referred the matter to the CECC. A spokesperson for the CECC did not respond to a request for comment.

The CECC report drew out specifics on the genocide in Xinjiang, detailing the systematic separation of ethnic minority children from their families and forced detentions of Turkic and Muslim individuals in mass labor camps. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally declared China’s crackdown on these minority groups a genocide in January 2021, shortly before President Donald Trump left office.

The report also outlined China’s crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression, citing its use of the threat of spreading COVID-19 to restrict individual movement and impede the operations of nongovernmental organizations deemed “illegal.”

On Hong Kong, the special administrative region of China now experiencing its most severe wave of the coronavirus, the report warned about further backsliding in democracy since the passage of a draconian national security law in 2020, which has led to widespread protests and arrests of journalists and activists by the central government, as well as a clampdown on the internet. The debated section on LGBTQ rights spotlighted the absence of protection against discrimination based on one’s sexuality and suppression of advocacy groups defending their rights, their efforts stonewalled by the Chinese government’s promotion of traditional gender roles.

“Documenting the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government is not only the commission’s mandate, but our moral obligation,” McGovern said in a press release Thursday coinciding with the report’s release.

“I commend the hard work and expertise of the commission’s staff in monitoring and reporting on trends in China, from the horrific genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, to the repression in Tibet and eradication of democracy in Hong Kong, to the authoritarian clamp down on space for civil society, labor advocates, women’s rights activists, and LGBTQ voices.”

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

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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