This genocide — that’s what it is — poses an urgent test for President Joe Biden’s new administration and for the international community. Either the United States and the world will finally go beyond tepid criticism and respond with real action, or we can forget about values, universal rights, and international law.
The term genocide should not be used casually. But it’s correct to use it to describe China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The UN’s Genocide Convention and US domestic law make it clear that genocide does not necessarily entail the group’s immediate destruction by mass killing, but rather that destruction of the group in whole or in part must be the intended result. Disagreements amongst lawyers and pundits create a distraction that simply allows China to continue its genocidal campaign.
It is encouraging that Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken have used the term genocide and committed to lead the global effort to end gender-based violence. But the new administration’s message has been muddled by other senior officials who have hedged rhetorically, and Biden himself drew criticism after a CNN Town Hall last week when he seemed to downplay the genocide as part of a “different norm.” Even his positive statements have yet to be backed by policy. This was exemplified in Biden’s first call as president with China’s Xi Jinping. Biden raised his concerns over the oppression of the Uyghurs which, while a good step, was insufficient when not backed by uniform US policy. What’s needed is a comprehensive strategy that holds China accountable for its human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and prioritizes ending violence.
The first step is articulating a clear, unified policy for the United States. The lack of clarity is nothing new. While former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly declared the crimes against the Uyghurs a genocide, the Trump administration’s approach to China and to human rights more broadly was spotty and inconsistent at best.
Biden has the chance to do better. A clear and consistent position from the US would allow for a whole-of-government response and ensure the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and Section 307 of the Tariff Act are fully enforced. These laws sanction parties involved in human rights abuses, identify where goods produced with forced labor are entering the US supply chain, and bans their import.
This will be crucial because Xinjiang produces 85% of China’s and 20% of the world’s cotton, according to the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. The DC-based think tank, formerly known as the Center for Global Policy, released a 2020 report that found “strong evidence that the production of the majority of Xinjiang’s cotton “involves a coercive, state-run program targeting ethnic minority groups.”
China is accused of forcing the Uyghurs to manufacture technology, clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) — much of it to export to the US for profit. There are also allegations of Uyghur forced labor being used to make hair products that are sold in the US. Former detainees have told CNN their hair was forcibly removed during internment. (Beijing has denied accusations of mistreatment of workers.)
Whole-of-government means this can’t just be a concern for State Department diplomats who work on human rights. Stopping a genocide should be a priority for every government agency that deals with China. It should come up in conversations about trade, technology, terrorism, climate, and global health. Beijing should understand that this isn’t a concern that can be brushed aside — it will be front and center in every interaction.
In addition, a cross-agency response should focus in particular on allegations of gender-based violence perpetrated against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Biden has already established a White House Gender Policy Council and has made clear that he plans to engage with the UN’s Women, Peace, and Security agenda (neglected by the Trump administration) to put gender equality and freedom from gender-based violence at the heart of US diplomacy. In his first week in office, Biden overturned the Mexico City Policy (or “global gag rule” reinstated by Trump) that restricts foreign aid for women’s sexual and reproductive health. But a government-wide focus on protecting and advancing the health, rights, and safety of women will be futile if it fails to extend to the Uyghurs, particularly given the testimonies in the BBC and CNN reports.
These testimonies should also compel Biden to reconsider US involvement in the Olympic Games. Too often in the past, hosting the Olympics has allowed authoritarian regimes to peddle propaganda and gain legitimacy — from the Nazis in 1936 to the Soviets in 1980 to the Chinese Communist Party in 2008 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2014. In response to China’s oppression of Uyghur communities and other human rights abuses, over 180 human rights groups and international legislators are calling for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing or boycotted altogether.
When the White House was recently asked about this, it missed a critical opportunity to condemn China’s human rights violations and affirm US leadership on the issue. The US should lead multilateral efforts, particularly with Muslim-led countries. The silence, if not outright appeasement from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation has been shameful. We need all hands on deck for this effort and the international community should declare with one voice that participation in the Olympics depends on progress for Uyghurs.
Further, Biden should not ease pressure over the Uyghur genocide in order to achieve other pressing priorities with China. Biden ran on a promise to pressure China — the world’s largest emitter of carbon — to stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing its pollution to other countries. Climate change is clearly an existential priority. But Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was right when he announced recently that the US would not trade other US interests to make progress on climate with China. We need to hold him and other senior officials accountable to that promise. We cannot sacrifice one goal for another, particularly when human suffering this acute is involved.
I’ve worked with victims of sexual violence in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and Syria. I have watched the world look away from previous horrors, and seen accountability come too late, if at all. This time has to be different. As the Biden administration works to reorient American foreign policy to ensure that it aligns with American values, it must signal to the world that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs won’t be tolerated.