The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ethnic cleansing makes a comeback — in China

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

If ethnic cleansing takes place in China and nobody is able to hear it, does it make a sound? That’s what millions of Muslims inside the People’s Republic are asking as they watch the Chinese government expand a network of internment camps and systematic human rights abuses designed to stamp out their peoples’ religion and culture.

Since last year, hundreds of thousands — and perhaps millions — of innocent Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in northwest China have been unjustly arrested and imprisoned in what the Chinese government calls “political re-education camps.” Thousands have disappeared. There are credible reports of torture and death among the prisoners. The government says it is fighting “terrorism” and “religious extremism.” Uighurs say they are resisting a campaign to crush religious and cultural freedom in China. The international community has largely reacted with silence.

Horrific as they are, the camps constitute just one part of Beijing’s effort. The government has destroyed thousands of religious buildings. It has banned long beards and many Muslim names. People are forced to eat pork against their beliefs. The Chinese government’s persecution of innocents continues even after their death. Crematoria are being built to literally extinguish the Uighur funeral tradition, which insists on burials.

Reporters for Radio Free Asia's Uighur service describe the detentions and harassment their family members face in their homeland in China's western region. (Video: Radio Free Asia)

Add to that the unprecedented security and surveillance state in Xinjiang, which includes all-encompassing monitoring based on identity cards, checkpoints, facial recognition and the collection of DNA from millions of individuals. The authorities feed all this data into an artificial-intelligence machine that rates people’s loyalty to the Communist Party in order to control every aspect of their lives.

If that doesn’t bother you, consider that this draconian expansion of Chinese repression is being exported to the United States and around the world. Families of U.S. citizens who speak out against Beijing are targeted as part of Beijing’s effort to snuff out all international criticism.

U.S. citizen Gulchehra Hoja, a journalist for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service, has had more than two dozen family members in China detained in the camps, including her elderly parents and her brother, who has not been heard from since his arrest last September. Many of her RFA colleagues have similar stories.

“I hope and pray for my family to be let go and released, but I know if that happens they will still live under a constant threat,” she testified last week before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “I came to the United States to realize a dream, a dream of being able to tell the truth without fear.”

Despite Beijing’s efforts, mounting evidence of the camps has managed to make its way to the outside world. Massive camp construction can be seen from satellites, and advertisements for new construction contracts are publicly available. Witnesses have told their stories. Yet the world has failed to respond.

Inside the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill, that may finally be changing. At last week’s congressional hearing, Ambassador Kelley Currie, a top official at the U.S. United Nations mission, called on the Chinese government to end its repressive policies in Xinjiang and to free all those arbitrarily detained.

The Chinese government is attempting to “Sinocise religion” and “transform religion and ethnicity in Chinese society” in a scheme more ambitious than Mao’s Cultural Revolution, she testified. “The scope of this campaign is breathtaking.”

The U.S. government has tools to raise the pressure and costs on China, should it decide to act. Commission Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called for U.S. corporations to stop selling China items that can be used for repression, including DNA technologies and video surveillance tools. The administration can also impose sanctions on senior Chinese officials for human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act. Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who honed his repression skills in Tibet and has now expanded them against Muslim minorities, is one obvious target.

“We clearly know horrible things are happening here to the Uighurs. And wherever there are abuses, there are abusers,” Rubio said. “It’s working. That’s the saddest part of all.”

The Chinese government’s obsession with its international reputation is its main vulnerability. Calling out these atrocities in public and to Beijing directly is key.

The horror in Xinjiang is not a China issue, it’s a global issue. China uses its position on the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. Security Council not only to stifle discussion of its actions but also to attempt to rewrite international human rights norms to allow expansion of these practices by any dictatorship with the means.

“The United States advances religious freedom in our foreign policy because it is not exclusively an American right,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week. “It is a God-given universal right bestowed on all of mankind.”

Those words mean little if the United States continues to stand by while the situation in Xinjiang worsens. We may choose to look away, but we can never say again we didn’t know.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: China’s repugnant campaign to destroy a minority people

Carl Gershman: Ending the silence on China’s Uighur repression

The Post’s View: In China, torture is real, and the rule of law is a sham

Teng Biao: China’s empty promise of rule by law

The Post’s View: China’s intrusive, ubiquitous, scary surveillance technology