US President Trump’s top national security adviser for China appeared to endorse an accusation by The Economist magazine that Beijing’s policies towards Uygurs and other Muslim minority groups in China’s far west Xinjiang region amount to crimes against humanity.
In a speech on Friday he delivered in Mandarin, Matthew Pottinger, a deputy national security adviser, described the Chinese government’s detention facilities in Xinjiang – which the UN says are holding one million Uygurs and other Muslim minorities – as concentration camps, and implored China’s citizens to learn for themselves what is happening there.
“It is in a spirit of friendship, reflection, and, yes, candour, that I ask friends in China to research the truth about your government’s policies toward the Uygur people and other religious minorities,” he said to a video conference hosted by the think tank Policy Exchange in London.
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“Ask yourselves why the editors of The Economist, in a cover article this week, called those policies ‘a crime against humanity’,” he said. “There is no credible justification I can find in Chinese philosophy, religion or moral law for the concentration camps inside your borders.”
The comments were among the sharpest yet from the Trump administration about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and represent the growing alarm among both political parties in Washington about the widespread human rights abuses believed to be taking place there.
Just minutes after Pottinger finished his speech – his second this year in Mandarin – a bipartisan group of 31 members of Congress said they had sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, urging them to do more to help Uygurs seeking to flee to the US, and to protect Uygurs already living in the US from what they say is Chinese persecution.
Last week, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told an online event hosted by the Aspen Institute: “If not a genocide, something close to it going on in Xinjiang.”
The Chinese government vehemently denies any wrongdoing in Xinjiang, and has described the camps there as job training centres. Its diplomats call criticism of the policies there interference in China’s internal affairs.
And on social media, China’s state media outlets pump out messages seeking to discount first-hand reports from Uygurs who spent time in the camps or whose family members have disappeared.
Yet widespread evidence has emerged out of Xinjiang in recent years of mass detentions, forced labour, and a government campaign to eradicate Uygur culture, which some observers have called “cultural genocide”. The Chinese government has also been accused of harassing Uygurs living overseas.
“Pottinger’s message to Beijing about its abuses of Uygurs is unambiguous in any language, and hopefully the remarks brings some comfort to those living this nightmare,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch.
“But actually ending the nightmare likely depends on concerned governments taking steps beyond strong coordinated rhetoric to a strategy involving investigations and accountability.”
In August, Politico reported that the Trump administration was considering whether to formally label the situation in Xinjiang a genocide – a rare governmental step that would likely imperil the US-China relationship far beyond where it has already fallen.
In a sign of the bipartisan consensus in Washington on Xinjiang, a spokesman for former vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the coming presidential election, responded to the report by saying the Biden camp not only agreed with the label but had said so first.
As US-China relations have deteriorated in the last year over trade policy, the coronavirus pandemic and the Hong Kong protests, along with human rights, the Trump administration has sought to punish a range of companies and government officials in Xinjiang with tools like financial sanctions, export controls and visa bans.
In July, the administration sanctioned Chen Quanguo, the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang. It has reportedly considered an import ban on all cotton products originating there, and has blocked the import of products from multiple textile companies operating in the region. Xinjiang is one of the world‘s largest cotton-producing regions.
But even as the administration has set its sights on Xinjiang, President Trump has faced criticism for not speaking out publicly about human rights in the region.
According to Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, the president last year reportedly told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he should “go ahead with building” the camps in Xinjiang. Trump has denied that.
In response to a question suggesting that Trump viewed the US-China relationship only in transactional terms without regard for morals, Pottinger, a former Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, defended the president and said to look at what he had done, “and not what the media says”.
“The Trump administration is the only government on earth that has imposed costs – concrete costs – on the People’s Republic of China for the concentration camps in Xinjiang,” he said.
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