KENTFIELD, Calif. – U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s presidential campaign calls China’s actions toward ethnic Uighurs a “genocide,” indicating he could address the issue more seriously than President Donald Trump.

Trump signed a Uighur human rights bill in June that aimed to punish China for its actions, although John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in his book that the president did not criticize the Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, when they met in 2019.

“With only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang,” Bolton wrote in “The Room Where It Happened” about the encounter between the two leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. “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.”

Trump denied these allegations in a June interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios. When asked if they were true, the president said, “No, not at all.”

In the interview, Trump also told Swan that he avoided punishing China for its actions in Xinjiang because he did not want to jeopardize trade talks with Beijing.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim-practicing ethnic minorities for what it claims is reeducation, but human rights activists say is suppression of Uighurs’ Muslim culture. A Uighur student who spent one month in different detention centers told Human Rights Watch that he was not officially charged with anything other than disrupting the suspicion of societal order. After his release, authorities put him under house arrest.

Chinese officials maintain that these structures are vocational training centers, which do not violate human rights. They say the camps are helping to eradicate terrorism, and to increase job opportunities by teaching skills including Mandarin and “knowledge of urban life,” according to a Chinese government report. 

Human rights organizations, the U.N. and many foreign governments have urged China to stop its imprisonment of these minorities. Activists claim that Xinjiang has been transformed into one of the most surveilled areas in the world, with the government employing advanced technology to track and identify those who they deem suspicious.

Biden’s approach will be different from Trump’s, says Minxin Pei, professor of Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College.

“Biden will work a lot more aggressively and closely with allies on the Uighur crisis while maintaining unilateral pressure on China through targeted sanctions,” Pei said via email Wednesday. “He will also likely reopen diplomatic channels to China trying to exert subtle and quiet diplomatic pressure to seek a change in Chinese conduct.”

The Trump administration imposed targeted sanctions on a number of Chinese officials in July, including Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s 25-member ruling Communist Party Politburo and the Party secretary of the Xinjiang region, for their roles in the Uighur issue. 

Biden has a relationship with Xi that spans nearly a decade. The two met multiple times during Biden’s tenure as vice president, and many photos show them smiling together. Biden has since called Xi a “thug.”       

Xi suggests the quality of life in Xinjiang is improving.

“The sense of gain, happiness and security among the people of all ethnic groups (in Xinjiang) has continued to increase,” he told a Party conference in September, Xinhua news agency reported.   

Experts on China are conflicted on how the U.S. should proceed.

“How do you know when to push back and when to work together?” Lingling Wei, a senior China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said to CMC students during an  online discussion. “It sounds really simple … confronting China, (but) it’s really, really difficult to do.”

Oriana Mastro, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, suggested a subtle approach to the crisis.

“If we really care about the Chinese people, we have to ask ourselves what’s the most effective way of improving human rights there, and it might not be to name and shame China,” she told students  in Pei’s Chinese Politics course. “It might be (most effective) to have a private conversation with Xi Jinping.”

(Written and reported by Gabe Fisher; Nov. 19, 2020)

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