- President Donald Trump said he pushed off sanctioning Chinese officials over their oppression of Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups for the sake of a trade deal, Axios reported.
- Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law on June 17. It aims to punish China for its treatment of the minority group.
- It gives the administration 180 days to compile a report to Congress identifying those responsible for the human rights abuses, who will be subject to sanctions and more.
- It would also investigate the harassment of Uighurs living in America.
- Uighurs living abroad told Business Insider they are still being harassed by the Chinese government and threatened not to speak out about the persecution.
- They also said China is attempting ethnic cleansing and genocide, and that much more needs to be done beyond Trump’s bill.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For Rushan Abbas, a member of the Uighur Muslim diaspora, being vocal about the reported human rights abuses, mass surveillance, and detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, western China, is an obligation.
But speaking out, she said, has come with a price.
Abbas, who now lives in the US, is the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, a nonprofit organization that works to promote Uighur rights and freedom. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling.)
In 2018, about a week after she spoke about human rights abuses against Uighurs in Washington, DC, her sister went missing from her home in Xinjiang, Abbas said. She believes her sister was taken by the Chinese government as retribution for her speaking out.
She told Business Insider this year she still hasn’t heard from her sister. In February, she said she wasn’t even sure if her sister, who suffers from high blood pressure and other health concerns, is still alive.
In early June, Radio Free Asia confirmed that Abbas’s sister had been detained, but not much information on her whereabouts and condition could be obtained.
Abbas’s sister is believed to be one of at least one million Uighurs that are being detained in what the Chinese government calls “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, a western region in China, where roughly half of the population of 25 million is made up of Uighurs and other Turkic minorities.
Many Uighurs call their heartland East Turkestan instead of Xinjiang, which is a Chinese name.
China sees Uighurs as religious extremists, and claims all its actions against the mostly-Muslim group are “counterterrorism and de-extremism measures.”
Activists, like Abbas, call the abuse tantamount to “genocide.”
Rushan explained that she knows many Uighurs who have had family members leave the camps only to die days or weeks later.
Trump takes action
On June 17, President Donald Trump signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which aims to punish China for its treatment of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It was passed almost unanimously by the House and Senate in May.
The law gives the Trump administration 180 days to identify Chinese officials responsible for human-rights abuses, and would level sanctions on those alleged to have roles in the mass surveillance and detention.
“The Act holds accountable perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses such as the systematic use of indoctrination camps, forced labor, and intrusive surveillance to eradicate the ethnic identity and religious beliefs of Uighurs and other minorities in China,” Trump said in a statement.
—USCIRF (@USCIRF) June 17, 2020
Activists divided over Trump’s actions
But Trump’s signing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 was just one of several headlines he made in June concerning reports of the detention camps in Xinjiang.
The same day Trump signed the new legislation, an excerpt from former national security adviser John Bolton’s upcoming memoir had alleged that Trump had expressed approval of the use of detention camps for Uighurs during a private meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
(US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told The Wall Street Journal that Bolton’s account of their conversation “never happened” and that it was “absolutely untrue.”)
Days later, Trump told reporters he had not imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the detention of Uighurs earlier because: “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal” with China.
Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he thought it was ironic that Trump signed the legislation on the same day the book excerpts were published.
“We condemn President’s Trump’s reported approval of China’s concentration camps — places of untold suffering, torture, abuse, rape, and death — for Uighur Muslims,” Awad wrote in a statement. “Congress must immediately investigate whether Trump gave his blessing to round up, imprison, and oppress an ethnic religious community in concentration camps.”
Meanwhile, Campaign for Uyghurs — Rushan Abbas’ group — applauded Trump and Congress’s move on the law, but said much more work needs to be done.
“As we celebrate one victory on the long path that still lies ahead, we grieve the countless people who are still suffering,” the organization wrote in a statement.
The detention camps
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has constructed hundreds of prisons and detention centers in Xinjiang and the surrounding region.
People who have been inside them — either as a visitor, employee, or inmate — have spoken of the forced consumption of forbidden foods in Islam, such as pork, mass surveillance, and various other forms of psychological and physical torture.
Leaked documents published by The New York Times showed a “ruthless and extraordinary campaign,” with instructions on how to handle every facet of the mass internment even down to how to answer the basic question of someone asking where their missing family member was.
A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that Uighurs in Xinjiang, including some in detention camps, have also been moved across China to forcibly work in factories. The Washington Post reported that many of them likely provided material for well-known international brands like Nike.
Uighurs living abroad have also told Business Insider they are frequently intimidated by Chinese agents through mysterious automated calls and sinister Facebook comments, among others.
Chinese officials have repeatedly denied human rights abuses and claimed the camps are vocational training camps meant to quell extremism. Last year, providing no evidence, China claimed to have released those who were detained.
But many see it as an effort to eliminate the Uighur identity.
“It’s just what they call it so they can ethnically cleanse us,” Sadam Abdusalam, a Uighur living abroad in Australia, told Business Insider, adding that an extended family member had been imprisoned just for praying five times a day.
“What does not eating pork have to do with national security?” Rushan Abbas said.
Suppressing the voices of Uighurs abroad
In addition to the untold horrors in the camps, members of the Uighur diaspora told Business Insider that there is still a large effort to suppress their voices and hide what’s happening in these camps.
In February, Abdusalam attempted to reunite with his wife and young child who have been trapped in Xinjiang for three years. His wife Nadila, and their two-year-old son — whom he has never met — are being kept under house arrest.
Abdusalam told Business Insider the only “crime” his wife committed was traveling to Turkey and the US after they were married. China often punishes Uighurs just for traveling abroad.
In a live Q&A session with ABC Australia, a Chinese diplomat claimed that Abdusalam’s wife told officials in Xinjiang she did not want to reunite with her husband in Australia. Her son is an Australian citizen.
“How could he even say that?” Abdusalam said. “Who wants to raise a child by herself?”
—ABC Q+A (@QandA) February 24, 2020
In response, Nadila sent a photo of herself holding a handwritten note that said: “I want to leave and be with my husband.”
—sadam_abdusalam (@SMusapir) February 25, 2020
Abdusalam called his wife “brave” for sending the photo knowing she could face consequences from Chinese authorities but explained that he knew that if she hadn’t, Chinese officials would send their own media crews to spread a false message that his wife was happy and wanted to stay.
Uighurs abroad say speaking out is the only way
Abdurehim Gheni, an activist living in Amsterdam, told Business Insider in March that he has been protesting since June 2018, and feels that speaking out is the only method to publicize the human rights abuses — despite being threatened.
“I have lost contact with all my family members in East Turkestan (so-called Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region) since 23rd May 2017,” Gheni told Business Insider in a Facebook message. “I don’t know if they are alive, dead or in concentration camps or in prison. Although I have tried in different ways, I haven’t been able to reach them.”
“Uighurs abroad are the only agents that speak about what has been happening in our homeland because we can get information from the region in this or that way, plus losing contact with our family members can be a piece of great evidence about the oppression,” he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a regional director at Amnesty International, explained that China’s efforts to intimidate those in the diaspora into staying quiet is a part of their tactic to keep what’s happening in the region under wraps.
“Policies are so excessive and extreme that China cannot allow the world to know what is happening,” he told Business Insider.
“Any kind of original thought or belief is a threat,” Abbas added.
‘Keeping silent is not going to take us anywhere’
Eldana Abbas, a Uighur who lives in Australia (and is not related to Rushan Abbas), told Business Insider in February that in order to speak out about China’s human-rights abuses while protecting her family, she has cut off ties with all relatives and friends in China.
Now, she doesn’t know anything about how they’re doing. But “keeping silent is not going to take us anywhere,” she said.
Earlier this month, Radio Free Asia reported that Qurban Mamut, a retired magazine editor in Xinjiang who went missing in November 2017, was confirmed detained in the region.
He visited his son, Bahram Sintash, in the state of Virginia a few months before he vanished. Sintash believes his father is innocent, and told Radio Free Asia in 2018 that his father was likely detained because “authorities regularly arrest people who have relatives living abroad [to gain leverage over them].”
‘Swift and continued unified action’
The bill Trump signed into law requires American authorities to look into the pervasive reports of harassment and threats of Uighurs and other Chinese nationals in the United States.
It would also require the US government to report violations of human rights in Xinjiang and China’s acquisition of technology used for mass detention and surveillance to Congress. And while many have said it’s a step forward, activists say much more needs to be done.
“There must be swift and continued unified action from the American government and all peace-loving nations across the world to act against the Chinese government officials who are complicit in these atrocities,” Campaign for Uyghurs said.
“They must not be allowed to continue to enjoy the benefits of free societies while denying it to millions of human beings.”
Gheni said he hopes for political and economic international pressure on China to address the persecution of Uighurs and other minorities.
“They have been deprived of their very basic human rights,” he said, “freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of practicing their identity and faith.”