China’s Human-Rights Abuses in Xinjiang: Respond with the Moral Language of Human Rights

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A guard watchtower along the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a “vocational skills education center” in Dabancheng, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 4, 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The proper reaction to the Chinese Communist Party’s concentration camps, political re-education efforts, forced sterilization, forced labor, and other human-rights abominations is moral indignation. Debate on crafting an effective response should follow, and certainly, there’s room for disagreement on what precisely that looks like. But condemnations wrapped in the language of fundamental rights should come first.

Like all things, though, contrarians with an ax to grind leverage these 21st-century concentration camps to criticize the United States and its allies. To be sure, these countries are not perfect, and their most vociferous critics would argue that they are fundamentally flawed. However, this is a conversation different from whether governments have standing to criticize the CCP for targeting minority groups in the far West Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Some of these takes acknowledge the horrors of the open-air prison that the CCP has made of Xinjiang — then, they promptly proceed to explain why America’s shortcomings prevent it from speaking out. Others deliberately elide the mass atrocities, discussion of which is politically inconvenient for Beijing. Each of them, though, ignores the significant role that human-rights promotion ought to play in the relationship with China going forward.

The most prominent example here is an essay about the Trump administration’s recent moves against Chinese tech. At The Verge, Sarah Jeong explains “how messed up” this entire saga is, in a tour de force essay that asks an essential question as a stand-in for the debate about TikTok: “’Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?’” Here’s her answer:

And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.

Earlier this summer, the American president decided to tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to mass protests — only a few days before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I am writing this column from Portland, Oregon, with my gas mask hanging next to my desk. When I go to tie my shoes, my laces emit faint puffs of residual tear gas.

In the interest of fairness, it’s worth asking whether Jeong actually thinks that the mass detention of over a million Uyghur Muslims is essentially equivalent to the Trump administration’s border policy and response to protests, and the president’s tweets. It’s worth noting that even many of the Trump administration’s most vocal opponents would put these actions into separate categories: Family separation is unconscionable, but there’s a strong case to say that officially sanctioned forced sterilization programs to drive down minority birthrates meet the criteria for genocide.

So was Jeong misunderstood? She later clarified on Twitter:

When challenged to get into the details by an editor, I looked up the numbers on how many migrants are currently detained in American camps. After dredging through articles about children being sexually abused, refugees catching coronavirus, and so on, I found some numbers.

My first reaction was, “Oh thank god, that’s way fewer than the Uighurs that are detained in Xinjiang!” Then I felt sick to my stomach.

The difference is one of degree and not kind. Is that really something to feel *good* about?

That speaks for itself — and for Jeong’s knowledge about these issues.

At E-International Relations, Kerry Brown — who runs an institute on Chinese politics at King’s College London and is an associate fellow at Chatham House — wrote an essay about “Why the West Needs to Stop its Moralizing against China.” In it, he calls for “humility and a more circumspect tone” in the West’s dealings with China, arguing that “toxic levels of anger and blame” has seen a move “by some political figures, from Trump downwards, to clamber on a moral high ground that has long since disappeared for them has simply proved too hard to resist.” The result is to impede crucially important cooperation on a range of global issues, such as the coronavirus response.

Let’s take a look at this “moral high ground” claimed by U.S. officials and their counterparts in some Western countries, as described by Brown. In his historical overview of the “mismatch between word and deed” by Western governments Xinjiang comes up once (and in his essay there’s no explicit mention of the Uyghurs.) He writes:

Perhaps the shock of September 11th, 2001 was the most dramatic moment. But it built on simmering resentments on the one hand, and complacency on the other, that allowed the management of its aftermath to cause the US and China to paper over their differences and wage a war on terror that meant the State Department Pompeo now heads allowed two Xinjiang groups to be put on an international terrorist list. From that first, albeit small, act of complicity, many others flowed.

While he claims U.S. acts of complicity in what flowed from the response to the 9/11 attacks, he does not see it relevant to elaborate on this. In an essay taking on the moral indignation of Western countries, Brown fails to clearly state what they are morally indignant about — all, of course, in the pursuit of bashing them for being too tough on the CCP.

Unlike Brown and Jeong, Micah Meadowcroft writes cogently about the CCP’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at American Compass, leading with a paragraph about its “horrifying” and “miserable” acts. To be clear, his post fills a category different from the explicitly whataboutist screeds offered by the others.

Although it’s based on different reasoning, the prescription is comparable, though. He runs through a litany of the American leadership class’s failures on China policy, pointing to offshoring, Chinese fentanyl exports, and Beijing’s industrial espionage, and arrives at the conclusion that it’s inappropriate to prioritize human rights concerns in relations with China:

Don’t our leaders owe those they represent the correction of these domestic ills? Though they may feel more powerful and more righteous condemning the CCP for its many cruelties, civic piety gives them a responsibility for the general welfare of their fellow citizens first.

“We can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time,” you think, protect humanity and serve the United States. Can we? I do not condemn the moral impulse to do something, when we see terrible violence and feel that we can stop it. I question our track record of success. Though squandering three decades as global hegemon is almost impressive, wars without end do not inspire confidence. If our governing class can learn from past mistakes, they might focus on their own debt to Americans, before they seek to make the Chinese pay.

But Americans can, as the piece puts it, “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Calls for a national industrial policy do not need to conflict with human-rights promotion, and in fact these two priorities can be complementary. In the specific case of Xinjiang, the CCP’s actions against the Uyghurs are in part motivated by a desire to pacify the region for Belt and Road Initiative activity and to support Chinese industry. Recognizing and condemning the human-rights abuses that contribute to Beijing’s industrial strength should be welcomed by proponents of an American industrial policy (as well as those who don’t support such a policy).

Why shouldn’t Americans respond to CCP human-rights abuses “armored in the moral language of human rights”?

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