Amid heightened attention to reports of forced labor being used to produce personal protective equipment, the seizure of a 13-ton shipment of hair products reportedly coming from Xinjiang’s “reeducation camps,” and resurfaced drone footage of blindfolded and shackled men being led into a train, increasing evidence suggests that the Chinese government is also engaged in a widespread and systematic policy of forced sterilization and targeted population control of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang). These allegations add to long-standing international concerns that between 800,000 and two million Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic minorities are subject to extreme persecution in Xinjiang, including arbitrary detention, forced labor, and torture in “re-education centers” akin to concentration camps. China’s imposition of measures to prevent births may amount to genocide under the terms of the Genocide Convention, to which China is a party. Moreover, as discussed by Lisa Reinsberg in her companion Just Security article, even absent a genocide finding, enforced sterilization is a human rights violation infringing on individuals’ rights to bodily integrity, family, personal liberty and security, and humane treatment.
The Trump administration has taken belated measures to hold the Chinese government accountable for its actions in Xinjiang. In many ways, these actions have been too little too late and are clearly colored by President Trump’s self-interest. As Chinese President Xi Jinping expanded the “people’s war on terror” in Xinjiang in 2016-17 to include mass detentions, Trump reportedly told him that constructing Uyghur internment camps was the “right thing to do.” In 2018, as further disturbing evidence of forced labor and psychological abuse emerged, Donald and Ivanka Trump received a combined 18 trademarks from the Chinese government — over half of the total issued that entire year.
In light of the Trump administration’s slow response amid the ongoing human rights crisis, what else can the United States do to counteract China’s abusive Xinjiang policies? Although there is no automatic government process for addressing extraterritorial human rights violations, atrocities, or acts of genocide, the U.S. government could consider a range of diplomatic, foreign assistance, economic, humanitarian, and judicial responses to allegations of ongoing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Broadly, potential responses can be separated into unilateral and multilateral actions.
Unilaterally, the United States can look to further and more effectively expand its targeted sanctions regime against perpetrators. While the administration has begun this process, it can still be improved. On July 9, the administration imposed economic and visa-based sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on four Chinese officials and one government entity responsible for persecution in Xinjiang. Among those sanctioned were senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials Chen Quanguo (Politburo member and Party Secretary of XUAR), and Zhu Hailun (Deputy Party Secretary of XUAR). Both Chen and Zhu were directly identified in the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 as “bear[ing] direct responsibility for gross human rights violations committed against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups.”