China’s Brutality Cannot Be Ignored

Biden must push back against the persecution of the Uyghur minority

A Uyghur woman and her children in the Xinjiang region of western China. Since late 2016, the Chinese government has conducted an unprecedented campaign of repression against indigenous groups in the area, including mass internment and forced sterilization. (Photo:Andy Wong/AP)

What is happening to the Uyghurs in northwest China is reminiscent of the pitiless eradication of other native cultures under settler colonialism, notably of indigenous populations in the Americas and Australasia. While the Chinese government’s intent is not necessarily to kill them, it is to forcibly move them off their land, to decimate traditions and solidarity, and ultimately to disconnect them from homeland and identity—what may be described as “cultural genocide.” Tactics used against Muslim indigenous peoples in Xinjiang include mass internment, family separation, forced labor, displacement, coerced miscegenation, involuntary sterilization, and linguistic and cultural destruction.

For the Biden administration to fulfill its pledge to “lead the democratic world,” it must urgently address what is among the gravest human rights crises of our times. The Chinese government’s campaign—assisted by mass surveillance using cutting-edge electronic and biological technology—is not just a horror in its own right. It serves as a cautionary tale about tech-driven and racially profiled oppression that we must stand against.

Given the rising influence and economic power of China, addressing its persecution of the Uyghurs will be difficult for a Biden administration already burdened with rebuilding relationships after Trump’s destructive “America First” approach. However, the Biden administration can put pressure on China if it takes three steps:

  1. Strengthen and modify sanctions already imposed by the Trump administration.

  2. Adopt some of the humility of the Obama White House in building broad international coalitions.

  3. Be bolder than the Obama administration in supporting human rights and democracy both at home and abroad.

Building on Trump administration policies

The Trump administration was critical of China’s treatment of Uyghurs, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially recognizing Beijing’s actions as “genocide” on his last day in office. "I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state," he said in a statement.

Previously, most Trump administration actions on this issue had been those that Congress mandated. In June, Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act with almost unanimous support, which compelled the administration to sanction Chinese officials and companies engaged in practices that violated Uyghurs’ rights. The Trump administration generally observed these obligations—but linked the repression of Uyghurs to the U.S.-China trade imbalance, sending a signal that this was more about geopolitical rivalry than human rights.

The Biden administration is signaling that it will adopt a tough stance on this issue. In confirmation hearings, the incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said he agreed with Pompeo. “The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party—all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide," Blinken said.

However, the Biden administration should be more action-oriented and less focused on blustery anti-China rhetoric. It should encourage further legislative action, and push the Senate to adopt the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, passed by the House in September to prevent goods produced with Uyghur forced labor from entering the United States. This would be more forceful than existing sanctions and cause more economic pain for Beijing, but it would also affect U.S. companies working in China, which is why several such companies have opposed the legislation. Support for these sanctions from Biden’s White House would send a signal that it puts human rights ahead of corporate profits, and that the Uyghur issue is about principles over geopolitical and economic competition.

Adopting Obama’s humility to create an international coalition

The Trump administration’s tendency to link condemnation of Uyghur persecution to geopolitical competition blunted international outrage over the abuses. The Chinese government capitalized on this, suggesting that accusations of Uyghur cultural eradication were nothing but anti-Chinese propaganda intended to ensure America’s global hegemony. While such arguments may not be convincing to traditional democratic allies of the United States, they have been more persuasive in the developing world, especially in Muslim-majority states, where the memory of America’s false accusations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq remains vivid.

For this reason, the United States cannot be the sole lead of a coalition to address what is happening to the Uyghurs. But it can, and must, take a central role in fostering that coalition. This was an approach that the Obama administration employed regarding the Ebola outbreak and climate change. While conservative pundits criticized this strategy, branding it “leading from behind,” it remains the only approach to address a human rights crisis in a multipolar world, especially when that crisis is created by one of the world’s most powerful states.  

At first glance, Biden’s plan to hold a summit of the world’s democracies next year presents a perfect opportunity to begin building a coalition to address Uyghur persecution. But to truly challenge China on this issue, his administration needs to mobilize more than the countries of the “free world” invited to the summit. To push other states into action, Biden must complete the unfinished business of the Obama administration, rehabilitating the United States as a defender of human rights and democracy in the aftermath of Bush’s military adventurism.

Bolder than Obama on human rights at home and abroad

The Biden administration knows that America—after the chaos and unrest of the Trump years—faces questions of legitimacy when it comes to rights and democracy. Its foreign policy plans refer directly to domestic issues, including the need to reduce racism, to maintain the integrity of U.S. elections, and to fight corruption. While these goals are important if the United States is to lead by example, they are unlikely to stir many Muslim-majority states, which are vital to challenging China’s treatment of Uyghurs. To truly lead by example, the Biden administration needs to rethink its counterterrorism policies in a way that both measures up to the highest aspirations of American values and accounts for the limited threat that Islam-inspired terrorism poses to the United States today.

The U.S.-led Global War on Terror has done much to squander the reputation America had during the 1990s as a protector of rights and democracy in the world. American use of torture, extralegal detention, drone assassinations, and racial and religious profiling has provided the Chinese state with a litany of excuses to deflect American criticism of its persecution of Uyghurs. China frames its campaign against the Uyghur people as a counterterrorism effort, using as justification the Bush administration’s recognition in 2002 of a little-known Uyghur group as a terrorist organization at Beijing’s behest.

The Biden administration’s foreign policy papers mention ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if America is to regain the credibility to push back against authoritarian governments that abuse charges of terrorism to suppress opponents, it must re-evaluate its conduct in the war against terror. This requires acknowledging the war’s past excesses, and ensuring counterterrorism is not an excuse for suspending human rights. Two immediate actions it can take to send such a message include halting the military’s surveillance of Muslims in America and closing the extra-legal Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

What is happening to the Uyghurs in China is intolerable. Over 1 million people—more than 1 in 10 of the Uyghur population—are held in incarceration and internment, where they suffer intense psychological torture meant to break them. Many have suffered rape and torture, leaving some incapacitated, others dead. Those outside penal institutions endure omnipresent surveillance, with no option but to comply with state policies of family separation, forced assimilation and coerced labor, lest they too end up interned.

If Biden’s administration is to stay true to its proclamations, the incoming president must address the Uyghur crisis. His ability to challenge Beijing on this issue may be the litmus test of his foreign policy success, revealing whether post-Trump America is again willing to strive for a rights-based world order.

Sean R. Roberts, author of The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Majority, is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University.