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Opinion What happened when Biden met Uyghur Americans persecuted by China

Members of the Muslim Uyghur community display pictures of relatives detained in China during a news conference in Istanbul on May 10. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
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After President Biden finished his speech at last week’s White House reception for Eid al-Fitr, he stepped down from the podium to greet the guests. He probably did not expect to meet two Uyghur Americans whose family members in China are being targeted by the Chinese government as part of Beijing’s efforts to silence its critics in the United States.

This was Biden’s first meeting with Uyghur American community representatives since becoming president, and it was not planned as anything more than quick handshakes. But when Ziba Murat started talking, Biden stopped his rounds and listened, Murat told me in an interview. Biden appeared visibly saddened when she told him about how Chinese authorities had arrested and disappeared her mother four years ago on spurious “terrorism” charges, five days after her mother’s sister had publicly criticized the Chinese government in Washington.

“I said, ‘I’m an American citizen, and my mother is in a concentration camp,' ” Murat said." And he stopped. And he looked at me, and I could see him getting emotional. And then he said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ ”

Uyghur American lawyer Nury Turkel told me that Biden then patiently listened to his own story. Turkel was born in a Xinjiang reeducation camp during Mao’s cultural revolution and went on to become an American citizen and a U.S. government official serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a journey chronicled in his memoir, “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs.”

Beijing has been retaliating against Turkel’s family because of his human rights advocacy in the United States. China won’t let his mother leave the country; he hasn’t seen her since 2004. His father died last month, before they could be reunited. Adding insult to injury, Beijing sanctioned Turkel and other members of the commission last year.

“I was moved and impressed by his empathy. ... I sensed the humanity of the man,” Turkel said of Biden. “Much like Putin’s Russia, regimes like the one in Beijing like to silence vocal critics through intimidation and abuse of their loved ones.”

Biden’s empathy and sensitivity are a welcome contrast to the demeanor of his predecessor, who reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping that his mass internment of Uyghur Muslims was “exactly the right thing to do.” But empathy goes only so far. The Biden administration must do more to address the problem of Americans targeted by Beijing’s long arm of transnational repression.

Dozens of family members of Uyghur or Uyghur American reporters at Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded journalism organization, have been thrown into the camps.

In March, the Justice Department arrested five men it alleges were working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security to stalk, harass and even attack Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong, Taiwanese and other Chinese dissidents across the United States. That’s a good start, but policymakers have been slow to respond to the rising tide of authoritarian states repressing people outside their borders.

The Post's View: China’s long arm of dictatorship reaches into the United States

China is not the only dictatorship engaging in these illegal practices. Last year, Freedom House released a report that compiled 608 cases of transnational repression since 2014, carried out by 31 governments against the citizens of 79 other nations. But China, the report states, “conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” Beijing has transformed its influence over Chinese-language media, social media apps, local diaspora groups, local crime organizations, economic leverage and diplomatic pressure into “a multi-faceted transnational repression bureaucracy.”

The U.S. government regularly issues statements condemning this or that abuse. Some cases are occasionally raised by U.S. officials with their Chinese counterparts. But our failure to focus on this problem largely allows Beijing to go on acting with impunity. Meanwhile, these U.S. citizens and their families continue to suffer.

“We are living in this unending nightmare,” Murat told me. “We are the human face of this. We are the living, breathing examples of this horror.”

The fight against authoritarian regimes repressing Americans begins at home. U.S. tech companies must stop letting their platforms be used by dictatorships to harass and attack innocent people in the United States. Congress should make it illegal for U.S. companies to sell their spyware and spying services to regimes that use it to persecute their critics abroad. Foreign tech platforms such as WeChat and TikTok that operate inside the United States should not be allowed to import Beijing’s repression via their software.

Autocrats will keep expanding their malign influence inside Western societies until our governments wake up to the threat and make confronting it a real priority. That means more law enforcement, more diplomatic pressure and more protection for those brave enough to speak out against dictatorship in the belief that the United States is a safe place in which to do so.

The Biden administration gets all of this, but it isn’t doing nearly enough. Maybe now that the president has heard stories directly from two American victims, he will spur the machine of government into action. One thing he can no longer say is that he has never been told.