China is currently detaining more than 1 million Turkic, majority-Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps in its northwestern province of Xinjiang, and the United States must use targeted tariffs and sanctions to stop them. Calling them ‘vocational training centers’, the central Chinese government has refused the United Nations and other states’ call for an end to the crackdown. The horrifying conditions of the centers, facial recognition cameras, checkpoints, confiscated passports, random police raids, and institutionalized rape, are a matter of daily life now for the Turkic, majority-Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Uyghur residents of Xinjiang have risen in protest multiple times since Xinjiang’s annexation by China in the 18th century. A history of discrimination by the central government against the Uyghur population has caused resentment against the political center and the majority Han population. Violence, rioting, and swift government retribution has created an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between the Han and Uyghur populations of the region. The recent government crackdown was rooted in the violent 2009 riots. As many as 1,000 Uyghur residents of Xinjiang protested in 2009 in Urumqi, calling for a full government investigation of a brawl that occurred between Uyghur and Han workers in Guangdong Province in Southern China that ended with two Uyghurs dead. Police confronted the protest in Urumqi, which ignited riots that left 200 people dead in 2009. This event brought the strained and distrustful relationship between Uyghurs and Han in China to the forefront of political and social discourse, and instigated the current crackdown.
Xinjiang is central to the Chinese development initiative known as ‘Belt and Road,’ which aims to develop transportation infrastructure connecting China to the Middle East and Europe, improving international economic and political relations for China. U.S. targeted sanctions that limit U.S. consumption and trade with Chinese multinational corporations and other foreign investors in the region would negatively impact the Belt and Road initiative, reducing Chinese incentives to control the region.
The current surveillance state and implementation of reeducation camps are intended to rid Xinjiang’s Uyghurs of their separatist tendencies. However, the camps and policing may be having the opposite effect. The CCP’s increasing pressure on Uyghurs has helped define the group’s identity. It is constructing a stronger, more cohesive group identity in the face of pressure from Beijing and the shared experience Uyghurs are facing in the reeducation camps. In addition, the camps may help radicalize Uyghurs, who now have a concrete cause for hatred towards the state. Furthermore, Uyghurs have many ties abroad, in states with their own radicalized elements such as Syria and Iraq. There have already been reports of Uyghur separatists training with radicalized Islamic terrorist groups. These reeducation camps may radicalize even more young Uyghur men and women.
Though the chances of an internal uprising in China are diminishing, the United States could see negative social and political effects if it does not act. The World Uyghur Congress, Uyghur American Association, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project all have a presence in the United States; where the latter two have offices in Washington D.C. The recent media coverage of the situation has raised global awareness and provoked international outrage. Uyghur and humanitarian lobbying groups and domestic concern could turn votes away from politicians who do not support the Uyghurs and attempt to end the Chinese crackdown, such as Senator Kamala Harris and others who did not sponsor the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act in January.
Domestically, there is a strong appetite for the U.S. to stand up to China, as evidenced by the continued escalation of the US-China trade war. In early October, the Trump administration blacklisted a number of Chinese companies who sold equipment to the Chinese government for surveillance use in Xinjiang. However, only a week after that announcement, the White House delayed further sanctions. Globally, the United States has diminished its credibility, particularly in regard to sanctions and tariffs by using these measures as leverage to renegotiate existing agreements, and even one-sidedly abandoning agreements and reinstituting sanctions under the current administration.
Policymakers have attempted to halt sanctions over China’s internment camps because of fears that it will disrupt U.S.-China discussions on the trade war. This decision is extremely short-sighted. These sanctions serve to condemn a humanitarian crisis. For that reason alone, the efficacy and cost-benefit calculation should be assessed beyond economic terms. Additionally, if the U.S. fails to punitively address Chinese actions in Xinjiang, autocratic states will be emboldened to enact similar or even more repressive and inhumane measures.
If the U.S. does sanction China for its actions in Xinjiang, China could respond in kind. This would negatively impact the U.S. economy, however, this is a price the U.S. should be willing to pay. Additionally, U.S. leadership in this arena could embolden other states to enact similar sanctions on China, and to switch trade relations from China to the U.S. and its partners. So far the U.S. is the only state to enact any tangible policies aimed at curbing Chinese behavior, but there have been calls for similar actions in Canada, Australia, Japan, and other states.
In order to effectively discourage China’s actions in Xinjiang, the U.S. must create sanctions and tariffs that are directly connected to the Xinjiang issue. It is important to target companies that have manufacturing in the region, businesses that own or are renting land there, and businesses that are aiding the repression of Uyghurs, similar to the blacklisting described above. Though this response will not immediately put a stop to the Chinese repression, murder, enslavement and rape of Uyghurs, it is all that the United States can do besides putting boots on the ground, which would have domestic and international repercussions. This is important to U.S. security for all of the reasons outlined above, and moreover, it is the right thing to do.
Miranda Sieg is a second-year Masters Student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs studying Security, Development and Conflict Resolution. She is primarily focused on education and cross-cultural violence issues in East and Southeast Asia, but has recently developed an interest in post-conflict development and the integration of refugees and at risk migrants. Miranda spent two and a half years total studying and working in Japan and traveling extensively in East and Southeast Asia. She currently works for the International Education Program at GW.