U.S. House Approves Uyghur Act, Condemning China’s Crackdown in Xinjiang

Following the U.S. Senate’s September passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Act, which some commentators saw as a potential watershed moment in the global stand against the ongoing crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved its own bill aimed at the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. Citing information from news agencies, The Guardian reports:

The Uighur Act of 2019 is a stronger version of a bill that angered Beijing when it passed the Senate in September. It calls on the president, Donald Trump, to impose sanctions for the first time on a member of China’s powerful politburo even as he seeks a trade deal with Beijing.

The Uighur bill, which passed by 407-1 in the Democratic-controlled House, requires the president to condemn abuses against Muslims and call for the closure of mass detention camps in the north-western region of Xinjiang.

It calls for sanctions against senior Chinese officials who it says are responsible and specifically names the Xinjiang Communist party secretary, Chen Quanguo, who as a politburo member is in the upper echelons of China’s leadership.

The revised bill still has to be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate before being sent to Trump. The White House has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the bill, which contains a provision allowing the president to waive sanctions if he determines that to be in the national interest. [Source]

Bloomberg’s Daniel Flatley compares the House bill to the earlier Senate version, outlines its provisions, and notes that U.S. lawmakers are working together to ensure a quick passage to law:

The House version of the Uighur human rights measure amends a Senate bill passed without objection in September. It adds provisions that require the president to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for the repression of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic group, and places restrictions on the export of devices that could be used to spy on or restrict the communications or movement of members of the group and other Chinese citizens.

Lawmakers, recognizing the momentum behind human rights legislation concerning China, are working to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills to agree on one version that can pass swiftly through Congress before the end of the year.

[…] Among other provisions, the bill requires the president to submit to Congress within 120 days a list of senior Chinese government officials guilty of human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xianjiang or elsewhere in China. That list would include Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and officials responsible for mass incarceration or “re-education“ efforts that single out Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.

The president would be required to impose visa and financial restrictions on the listed individuals under the Global Magnitsky Act.

[…] “We need to get something sent over here that’s acceptable to both sides and that we could hopefully persuade Banking to waive jurisdiction on it,” [U.S. Senator Marco] Rubio said, referring to the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over export controls. [Source]

President Trump last week signed the Hong Kong Human Rights Democracy Act, which requires an annual review that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being maintained and imposes penalties on Beijing for acts of repression in Hong Kong, where a six-month running protest movement is ongoing. China reacted by imposing sanctions on U.S. rights NGOs and banning U.S. military vessels from visiting the city. Following the approval of the House Uyghur bill, Beijing has issued warnings of retaliation to Washington. Reuters’ Se Young Lee and David Brunnstrom report:

Several sources familiar with Beijing’s stance told Reuters the bill could jeopardize the so-called phase-one trade deal already fraught with disagreements and complications.

[…] “Do you think if America takes actions to hurt China’s interests we won’t take any action?” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said when asked whether the Uighur bill would affect the trade negotiations. “I think any wrong words and deeds must pay the due price.”

[…] Hua said China would set no timeline or deadline for a trade deal and would take “decisive” countermeasures to defend its interests if what she called U.S. protectionism and bullying over trade continued.

[…] Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang made “stern representations” to William Klein, the U.S. embassy’s minister counselor for political affairs, and urged the United States to stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs, state TV reported. [Source]

Hua Chunying spoke at length on China’s opposition to the bill in her December 4th press conference. On Twitter, just ahead of the passing of the bill, editor of the state-affiliated nationalistic Global Times also warned of retaliation:

More on Chinese threats to leverage its stance in the ongoing trade talks with the U.S. in response to the bill comes from the South China Morning Post’s Shi Jiangtao and Jun Mai. The SCMP coverage also notes that while some observers don’t see the provisions of the new bill having a major impact on Xinjiang officials, international rights organizations are applauding the congressional action:

“The response from international communities has been inadequate so far given the severity of the abuse. We hope to see targeted sanctions being imposed on officials in Xinjiang where there is at least a reputational cost,” [senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch Maya] Wang said, adding that the bill would encourage governments and diplomats around the world to step up the pressure.

“The … sanctions might seem to have little impact on the lives of the abusers but it is sending the right signal to those who are [responsible].”

Adam Ni, co-editor of China Neican, a China analysis newsletter, said the passage of the bill indicated that the US was increasingly willing to use different levers of power to confront China.

“Both bills are quite important especially in the juncture in the bilateral relations as well as the domestic debate in the US on how to respond to China. There’s an increasing sentiment among elites in Washington that China policy needs to change, the US needs to devise an effective response to China’s challenge,” he said. [Source]

The crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which has been called a form of “cultural genocide,” was officially launched in 2014. Beginning with policies limiting Islamic dress and religious custom, and promoting practices forbidden in , it has since 2017 culminated in AI-fueled mass detention program where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been or are being held in a network of internment camps. In recent weeks, a series of leaks—the first published by The New York Times, another analyzed by China ethnic minority scholar Adrian Zenz, and yet another acquired by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—have further revealed the evolution and execution of the mass detention program.

As international opposition to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang mounts and as U.S. congress works to pass a relevant law aimed at the Chinese officials responsible for the situation, the South China Morning Post’s Mimi Lau reports on the difficulties Beijing is having filling official posts in the Xinjiang region:

The measures targeting Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have triggered “widespread discontent among Han Chinese officials and citizens”, a source close to the central government told the South China Morning Post. The source said Chinese President Xi Jinping was aware of the problem because he had been briefed by the country’s chief Xinjiang policy coordinator, Wang Yang.

[…] “[Wang has] said in his briefings that even the Han people are deeply dissatisfied,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Life is harsh [in Xinjiang] even for cadres. Officials are exhausted as nobody is allowed days off [even after working for weeks].”

[…F]or the officials on the ground in charge of carrying out Beijing’s Xinjiang policies, life is increasingly unpleasant, according to the source. China has set up what is called a “sent-down system” in the region that requires cadres to live in the homes of Uygurs as part of surveillance programmes.

“The cadres sent down must bring gifts and pay out of their own pocket and anyone refusing to go is sacked right on the spot. Measures like these have triggered widespread resentment,” the source said.

Xinjiang authorities regularly advertise jobs with lucrative packages, but it is hard to retain people and requests for early retirement have been rejected. [Source]


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