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The US Should Think Twice about Playing the Xinjiang Card

Jul 17 , 2019
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

The Xinjiang issue has been a thorn in the side of Sino-US relations since 2016. The US has increasingly criticized China’s way of dealing with Xinjiang, calling vocational training centers for minority people “systemic and egregious human rights abuses” and even seriously discussing imposing sanctions. However, a deeper and more thorough study on the issue will reveal that the US’s criticism and actions are all irrelevant and unreasonable.

First, Trump’s own human rights policy is so inherently flawed that he lacks any moral ground to condemn others. Trump has never given much thought to human rights per se, except when he needs it for leverage. He has wielded harsh words on human rights abuses against adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, but has remained quiet on the actions taken by his “intimate friend” Saudi Arabia, the brutal death of the journalist. He has been frequently criticized domestically for his affinity with such authoritarian leaders as Putin and Erdogan. His chemistry with DPRK’s leader has also raised domestic concerns about his departure from US precedent on “human right values”. Though he has not yet mentioned Xinjiang, which is certainly not an issue of interest to him, some of those around him are quite vociferous on the issue. A bipartisan bill, the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, which is headed to a vote in the Senate, demands that the Secretary of State consider “the applicability of the Global Magnitsky Act to impose targeted sanctions” on Chinese officials who are allegedly responsible for “human rights abuses” in Xinjiang. It also requests to expand the “Entity List” to include businesses that have provided technology, training, or equipment to officials “in mass detentions and surveillance”, including Chinese companies like Hikvision and Dahua Technology.

Although the US has long boasted of its idealism in foreign policy, it has always been tailored by realistic and strategic interest. Currently the above sanctions are still being held for the purpose of trade negotiation. However, the possibility that the bill will be passed and enforced is still high if Trump needs tougher means against China on trade. Therefore, his choice to play the human rights card is never out of genuine US “values” rather out of realistic interest.

Second, the US model of dealing with terrorism up until now has not been successful and persuasive, therefore US leadership is devoid of any grounds to refuse China’s approach. The Chinese ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai once said that while the US was using missiles and drones to kill terrorists, “we are trying to re-educate most of them, trying to turn them into normal persons [who] can go back to normal life”. He cautioned that the US should not hold double standards against China on this issue. According to a white paper published by China’s State Council this March on Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism and human rights protection, from 1990 to 2016, thousands of violent terrorist activities took place in Xinjiang, bringing about drastic disasters and instability in the region. Running vocational training centers is a way to curb the situation and eradicate the root cause of terrorism, a way that is suitable to China’s condition. The local government has carefully identified those people who have been tapped to engage in terrorist activities but who have yet to commit serious crimes, and has allowed them to study law, Mandarin and working skills so as to increase their identification with the country and also learn ways to make a living.

The US society, through the painful experience of 9/11 and the aftermath of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has come to the conclusion that in order to get rid of terrorism, waging wars and abolishing terrorists physically are not enough at all. It must also address terrorism systematically, through social and economic means. Compared to the American way of dealing with terrorism, China’s proactive efforts and obvious achievements in this regard should win praise rather than condemnation. In fact, no new terrorist activities have occurred over the past more than two years, and the region now enjoys stability, security, economic prosperity and even very rapid growth in tourism.

Third, China has always been a strong supporter of the international anti-terrorism movement. In the Bush and Obama eras, China and the US had some solid cooperation in this respect: both agreed to list “East Turkistan” as a terrorist group, and they cooperated with each other on curbing it. The US has asked and still needs China’s cooperation in handling terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US should regard China as a worthwhile partner rather than an object of condemnation. To resort to Xinjiang as a bargaining chip for trade benefit is even worse and immoral. As to the US Congress and human rights advocates, they should take note that some of the leading Islamic countries have praised China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens”, and that Erdogan recently stated during his China visit that the “Xinjiang issue should not be abused to damage Sino-Turkey relations”, a gesture that reveals a change of attitude for his country. It will be hard for the US to rally international support for its unfair and unreasonable policy on this issue.

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