“Explicitly Linked”: An Update on Xinjiang and American Foreign Policy

Over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for the Made by History blog at the Washington Post imploring the Trump administration to say and do more about the tremendous human rights tragedy ongoing in Xinjiang. I put my comments in a longer historical context, describing how the Nixon administration sidestepped Xinjiang over apprehensions that the issue could disrupt the Sino-American rapprochement. I noted that, as the United States was seeking a new trade deal with China and cooperation on pressing security issues like North Korea, it was possible a similar rationale would prevail.

(A longer, unedited version of the piece also appeared on this blog.)

I waited, and waited for more to unfold in this space. Finally, there are some new developments to report.

First, the bad news. John Bolton’s book, which I will not read, apparently includes an unsettling claim that Trump had approved of the extrajudicial detentions of Uyghurs during a conversation with Xi Jinping. According to the New York Times:

“Mr. Bolton accused the president of once supporting Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang… Mr. Bolton said Mr. Trump had questioned why the United States would impose sanctions on the Chinese officials involved.

In a private meeting with Mr. Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in Japan last year, Mr. Bolton wrote, the president even accepted the rationale of Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, for the creation of a vast system of camps and surveillance in Xinjiang.

‘According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,’ Mr. Bolton wrote.”

However, this chilling story dropped almost the same day that Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law. Whether Trump really said and/or believed the disreputable things claimed by Bolton is increasingly moot.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act had been gestating for a long time – too long – but its passage is important. It calls for the President of the United States to “condemn abuses” committed against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. It also elevates the position of Xinjiang in broader U.S. considerations toward China. Policy toward the PRC, in the words of the bill, is now “explicitly linked” to what is happening in Xinjiang. Various arms of the U.S. federal government must monitor and report on developments in Xinjiang, and share their findings with Congress within 180 days of the bill’s signing. The bill includes several other concrete provisions, including penalties against Chinese policymakers.

Following the bill’s passage, the Department of the Treasury announced sanctions against several Chinese government officials and entities responsible for human rights abuse in Xinjiang, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Chen Quanguo, the Party Secretary in Xinjiang and a Politburo member, is among those individuals targeted by the Magnitsky act sanctions. The sanctions almost immediately elicited a response from China, including “reciprocal” sanctions against several U.S. lawmakers.

The Department of Homeland Security also recently warned U.S. businesses about relying on supply chains in Xinjiang. Specifically, American companies could “face reputational, economic, and legal risks” if they “knowingly benefit from forced labor in Xinjiang,” the DHS wrote in a statement.

Finally, yesterday (July 12), the Washington Post published an op-ed under the name of Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert C. O’Brien, that described China’s “horrifying” and “heartbreaking” treatment of the Uyghurs. O’Brien closed the piece with a pledge to “continue to shine the light of truth on Xinjiang — for the Uighurs and for us all.”

Isa Yusuf Alptekin, one of the most prominent Uyghur exile leaders ever, tried to get Americans to pay attention to Xinjiang in 1950. Alptekin tried again in 1970 to raise the profile of Xinjiang, even traveling to the United States to make his case. At both times, the United States looked the other way.

Now, many years after Alptekin’s death, Xinjiang is finally at the forefront of U.S.-China relations.

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