Home News US officials hit China’s 'repression' of Uyghurs at international religious freedom summit

US officials hit China’s ‘repression’ of Uyghurs at international religious freedom summit

The three-day summit addresses religious persecution around the world, but has focused heavily on China’s targeting of Uyghurs

Senior US government officials and politicians denounced China on Wednesday for alleged genocide against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, taking aim at Beijing’s policies at the inaugural International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington.

The three-day event, which began Tuesday, addressed religious persecution around the world, but has focused heavily on China’s targeting of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in a crackdown on the minority group and its language, religion, and culture that intensified in 2017.

“The Uyghur community faces an existential threat from Beijing, which is a challenge to our own conscience,” said Nancy Pelosi, US speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democratic congresswoman from California, said in prerecorded video remarks.

“We have and we will continue to speak out because as I always say, if we do not speak out about human rights violations in China, indeed anywhere because of commercial interest, then we lose our moral authorities to speak out on human rights violations anywhere,” she said.

Of the 12 million Uyghurs living in the XUAR, China has forcibly held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs in a network of detention camps since 2017, with smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic-speaking people, also incarcerated in the system. Beijing says the camps are vocational training or re-education centers aimed at combating religious extremism in its northwestern region.

Those not held in camps are subjected to arbitrary arrests, restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a pervasive digitized surveillance system that monitors their every move using facial recognition cameras, cell phone scans, DNA collection, and an intrusive police presence.

Tursunay Ziyawudan, a Uyghur woman twice detained in internment camps, gave testimony at the summit about her experience of the abuse that inmates suffer at the hands of the Chinese. She recalled that when she was confined the second time in 2018 for nearly a year, she and another young woman were raped by Han Chinese police officers.

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“They were always taking girls out of the cells like this,” she said according to a written translation in English of her speech in the Uyghur language. “They did whatever they wanted. Sometimes they brought some of the women back near the point of death. Some of the women disappeared.”

Tursunay said she saw other female inmates bleed to death after being assaulted, while others “lost their minds in the camp.”

Uyghurs demonstrate to ask for news of their relatives and to express their concern about the ratification of an extradition treaty between China and Turkey, on Feb. 22 near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP)

‘A profoundly disastrous situation’

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the outgoing Trump administration in January designated abuses in the XUAR as part of a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilization, and persecution.

“[The] ongoing shocking, indeed horrifying, treatment of the Uyghur population being rounded up in Xinjiang province plays into these truly Orwellian concentration camps where people are surveilled at all times, placed in slave labor, forced to conduct abortions and sterilizations,” Pompeo told the summit.

“It should strike at the heart of every human being and every American who cares or claims to care about freedom in the world,” he added.

The Biden administration endorsed Pompeo’s designation and has imposed sanctions against Chinese officials deemed responsible for the repression. It has since ramped up punishments against China, targeting Chinese firms that manufacture solar-panel material, wigs, electronics, tomatoes, and cotton with suspected forced Uyghur labor.

“The Uyghur case is just such a profoundly disastrous situation and it is a current and ongoing genocide,” Sam Brownback, former US ambassador at large for international religious freedom under the Trump administration, told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview on the sidelines of the summit.

Despite measures by both the Trump and Biden administrations to force the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to stop its repression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the XUAR, the Chinese government has continued it, Brownback said.

“The Communist Party [by] every indication seems to be doubling down and continuing the persecution and creating a virtual police state,” he said. “Even if you get out of the concentration camps, there are cameras, there are limitations on travel, and there’s a social credit system that limits people’s ability to practice their faith. They’ve not let up.”

So far in July, the US Commerce Department has blacklisted 14 new Chinese firms companies accused of direct involvement in human rights abuses in the XUAR. On Tuesday, both the U.S. government issued expanded guidance to American companies about doing business in the XUAR, citing forced labor and genocide against the Uyghur ethnic group.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held a virtual meeting last week with seven Uyghur camp survivors and advocates to hear first-hand about the abuses being committed in Xinjiang.

Blinken briefly addressed the IRF Summit in a prerecorded video, but did not discuss the situation in the XUAR.

This photo taken on June 5, 2019 shows Uyghur men in Kashgar in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. China has enforced a massive security crackdown in Xinjiang, where more than one million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

‘More needs to be done’

Brownback acknowledged the latest US measures, but said “more needs to be done” by the international community as a whole.

“I think we need to move the Olympic Games,” he told RFA, referring to the Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing in February 2022. “If they are going to continue to have an ongoing genocide, you can’t conduct the Olympics and do a genocide at the same time. The world community needs to say that.”

Some democratic governments, including the U.S., are considering boycotts of the Beijing Games over the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in the XUAR, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

“Shockingly as he prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, China’s leader Xi Jinping is committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang,” said Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey.

“The Chinese Communist Party today is systematically erasing Islam in western China, bulldozing mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practices, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith,” he said.

Smith noted that the abuses against the Uyghurs, specifically forced disappearances into the internment camps, forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghur women, and the taking of Uyghur children from their homes and placing them with non-Uyghur families in other parts of China, all “fits the definition of genocide.”

Smith also said he chaired a congressional hearing on the “Beijing genocide Olympics” on May 18 during which he argued that the Games should be moved to another city or country or be boycotted.

At the end of June, Smith called for the establishment of a US special envoy to address China’s campaign of genocide against the country’s Uyghurs, adding the proposal as an amendment to a bill already under consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress.

The Chinese government had not yet issued any comments on the IRF Summit, though Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian earlier on Thursday dismissed Washington’s updated Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory, saying that charges of genocide were “the same old lies in the Xinjiang-related reports it issued one after another.”

“The repetition of lies just lays bare its hypocrisy and hegemony on human rights,” he said.

This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows two women decorating a grave in a Uyghur graveyard on the outskirts of Hotan in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. China has enforced a massive security crackdown in Xinjiang, where more than one million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

China issues white paper

On Wednesday, China’s State Council Information Office issued an 8,000-word white paper defending its policies in the XUAR, and claiming that Beijing upholds rights including political, economic, cultural, and social rights, the rights of women and children, and the freedom of religious beliefs.

“Xinjiang attaches importance to preventing terrorism at its source,” the document said. “It has carried out preventive counter-terrorism measures, including the establishment of vocational education and training centers, to protect basic rights.”

The white paper asserted that there have been no terrorist incidents in the XUAR since the end of 2016 and that “the infiltration of extremism has been effectively curbed, and the right to life of people of all ethnic groups has been fully protected.”

In response to the white paper, the US repeated its calls for China to end its repression of Uyghur and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the XUAR, and to release those arbitrarily held in internment camps and detention facilities.

“Despite growing international condemnation and extensive evidence of forced labor, internment camps, torture, and sexual violence, the PRC continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” the State Department said in an email to RFA. “These atrocities cannot be ignored or denied.”

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