Uighur Minority Rights: A Subplot To U.S.-China Trade War

Washington is threatening to use the so-called 'Magnitsky Act' to target Chinese officials for sanctions in response to Beijing's mistreatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in northwestern China.

A file photo of an Uighur rights protest in Washington
A file photo of an Uighur rights protest in Washington
Milkhail Korostikov

MOSCOW — U.S. officials said last month that they're studying the possibility of introducing sanctions against China, targeted at individuals, in accordance with the Magnitsky Act, first adopted in 2012 to punish Russia. Washington's aim is to pressure Chinese officials to protect the rights of the Uighur minority Muslim population in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Over the last two years, having declared "a popular war against terror," Beijing has significantly toughened the security regime in the region. According to U.S. officials, restriction of religious freedoms and human rights violations have grown under the cover of the fight against extremism. But targeted sanctions by Washington risks further deepening a diplomatic rift over trade policy.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Laura Stone has vowed to keep bringing up the issue of minority rights with her Chinese counterparts, one of whom responded that Washington should "put an end to any forms of interference into the country's internal affairs."

The U.S. has long criticized the human rights situation in China, but now members of Congress are calling on U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to identify the names of specific Chinese officials who could be subject to sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. The law, named for the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in a prison under questionable circumstances, was adopted in the U.S. in 2012 and reinforced in 2016 to freeze assets and impose other restrictions on individuals in foreign governments who have violated human rights.

In December, the law was applied to the former Beijing police official Gao Yan, whom Washington accuses of being an accomplice in the 2014 murder of human rights activist Tsao Shunli.

Meanwhile, ethnic Uighurs living in the U.S. have accused Beijing of cracking down on the Muslim community in Xinjiang, with the installation of cameras equipped with facial recognition systems, scanning of citizens' mobile phones for signs of forbidden content, collection of the regional population's DNA and a large number of policemen constantly patrolling the streets. There are also reports of systematic arrests and "reeducation camps' of hard labor.

Beijing has denied the existence of "reeducation camps' but doesn't deny the toughened security regime in the region they say is aimed at fighting "three forces of evil": terrorism, separatism and extremism. From April 11-14, Van Yan, a member of the Communist Party's Political Bureau, visited the region and ordered local governors to "stick to the right ideology, counter harmful thoughts, eradicate extremism and fight poverty."

The article on his visit written by the professor of the Chinese academy of social sciences Xu Jianying and published on the website of the state news agency Xinhua states that "a tough policy must be implemented in order to get rid of enemies striving to make the country fall apart." Another commentator, speaking anonymously, talked about "maintaining the maximum pressure and pursuing an effective policy with the aim of reinforcing the result that has been achieved."

A local source told Kommersant that authorities are fighting against any form of religiosity in the region and hoping, specifically, to undermine the Uighur people's linguistic and cultural identity. One example cited by Ivan Zuyenko, a researcher of the Centre for Asian and Pacific studies of the Far East Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was that during religious holidays students are literally locked in student towns. As part of the fight against open manifestations of religiosity, 24-hour shops and restaurants are increasingly forced to closed during Ramadan, although they used to work at nights like everywhere in the Islamic world (during Ramadan eating is possible only after the sunset).

The growing criticism of the situation in Xinjiang by the U.S. authorities came as the trade war against Beijing was launched by Washington at the beginning of April. "Measures taken by the U.S. are aimed not so much at interfering in the situation in Xinjiang as finding China's vulnerabilities and preying on them," says the Chinese source. But this, in its turn, risks producing an inverse effect: China's authorities may tighten the screws even more to show they will never be subjected to pressure.

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