Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The trade war between China and the United States — and recent talk of possible compromises in the trade talks between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping — has sent markets on a roller coaster ride. But whatever Trump and Xi agree to on trade, the United States must not compromise on the challenge of Chinese human rights abuses.
Beijing’s repressive policies in Tibet have brought well-deserved criticism for decades. Now Beijing is sparking renewed outrage with its thuggish tactics in Hong Kong and its internment of at least 1 million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation centers” across China’s Xinjiang province. The crackdown on the Uighurs must count as the most scandalous human rights atrocity of our time, perhaps second only to the mass slaughter of Syrians by strongman President Bashar al-Assad.
Although more vocal than most majority Muslim nations, the United States has been relatively silent on Xinjiang. This is consistent with Washington’s long-standing and bipartisan policy of hedging, given China’s growing economic, political and military power. But Washington has the ability to enact a targeted measure against the architect of the Xinjiang camps without directly challenging Beijing. The move falls far short of the policy we ultimately need, but it would represent a step in the right direction.
Chen Quanguo is the man behind China’s “reeducation centers.” He is an obvious candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions.
The original Sergei Magnitsky Act became law in December 2012. It required the administration to impose sanctions on those involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after reportedly uncovering a tax fraud scheme. It also slapped sanctions on individuals in Russia “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the Government of the Russian Federation; or to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.”
Realizing that it now had a tool to combat human rights abuses by other governments, Congress in 2016 passed into law the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. When the Trump administration implemented the Global Magnitsky Act through Executive Order 13818, the law became applicable to any person around the world “responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”
Since then, the United States has imposed Global Magnitsky sanctions on more than 100 people and entities hailing from such places as South Sudan, Russia, Belgium, Israel, Gambia, Guatemala, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The measure makes enough noise to rattle the country engaged in human rights abuses. At the same time, it is targeted enough to ensure that the fallout can be contained.
In August of last year, the Trump administration used these sanctions to punish Turkish officials for their unlawful detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson for almost two years. (Ankara’s rush to release Brunson two months later is proof that targeted sanctions can work.) In November, the administration targeted 17 Saudis for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi — although critics say this did not go far enough.
Chen is a perfect target for Global Magnitsky sanctions. According to a profile that appeared last year by Bloomberg News, Chen was appointed as the Chinese Communist Party’s top official in Tibet, which was then experiencing unrest. He reportedly deployed CCP loyalists to villages, Buddhist temples and monasteries. By 2015, Bloomberg News reported, Chen had deployed an estimated 100,000 cadres to Tibetan villages, and Beijing deployed more than 12,000 police.
Chen’s success in Tibet prompted Xi to deploy him to Xinjiang, where Beijing has struggled to quell the population of Turkic-speaking Chinese Muslims. A tiny number of Xinjiang’s estimated 11 million Uighurs have reportedly joined extremist groups. But they are not the ones responsible for the unrest that has occasionally challenged Chinese rule since 2009.
Nevertheless, Xi ordered Chen to get the entire region under control. Chen once again sent party officials and loyal Han Chinese to live in Uighur areas (described to me by Chinese officials during my 2016 visit as “harmonization”). The number of police in Xinjiang has skyrocketed, according to a Jamestown Foundation report, with some 7,500 “convenience police stations” popping up across the regime. Chen also built a network of checkpoints and facial-recognition cameras.
Finally, Chen established the “reeducation centers” holding more than 1 million Uighurs. They are alternatively described as “vocational training centers.” But it is clear that participation is not voluntary. There are reliable reports that detainees have been tortured or brainwashed. Other reports suggest that children are separated from their families and forced to renounce their Uighur identity.
Reports from last year suggested that the Trump administration was weighing sanctions against China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The White House apparently chose other targets, such as proliferators and sanctions evaders in North Korea and Iran. But there is nothing stopping this administration from returning to this issue.
Chen remains one of the worst human rights abusers of our time. The evidence against him is irrefutable. These are two compelling reasons for the White House to act, trade talks or not.