State Dept ramps up pressure over China’s ‘horrific’ Uyghur abuses

The US State Department has outlined plans to boost pressure on China over what it called “horrific abuses” of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, an issue that is becoming one of the biggest points of tension between the world’s two biggest economies. 

In a report to Congress marked “sensitive but unclassified,” the department explained how the US would raise its concerns about the treatment of the predominately Muslim Uyghurs, who face what the administration has called a campaign of “genocide,” a charge Beijing has repeatedly denied. This would be done in meetings with other nations, multilateral institutions such as the G7, and the private sector. 

“The US government will fully leverage its authorities and resources to combat forced labor in Xinjiang,” the report said. It also sought to counter “intrusive surveillance, forced population control measures, separation of children from families, mass detention, torture, coercive ethnic and religious assimilation.”

President Joe Biden has put human rights at the forefront of his China policy, highlighted by a law set to take effect next month that bans imports of goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren’t made with forced labor. It’s also weighing the unprecedented step of imposing more severe Treasury Department sanctions on Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., which makes cameras and surveillance systems used in Xinjiang.

The focus on Xinjiang is part of broader US efforts to rally allies and partners around the world to pressure China on a range of fronts, including its diplomatic support for Russia and suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

While China and the US both still trade with each other more than any other country, in recent years they have started to wall off economic ties in strategic areas on national security grounds.

The State Department report shows a recognition that the US alone can’t exert enough economic pressure on China to force changes to its Xinjiang policies, according to Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who has conducted extensive research on Xinjiang. 

“The report outlines a strategy that is far ahead of what I have seen from other nations,” Zenz said. “If this is implemented, it represents a clear step up from previous efforts.”

The report says the US will seek to identify companies or other entities that may benefit from forced labor in Xinjiang, without naming any entities. The US, according to the report, will work with companies to conduct “supply chain due diligence to prevent the importation of goods mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part with forced labor in Xinjiang into the United States.”

That could include agricultural products like cotton and tomatoes, as well as polysilicon and aluminum, materials critical to tech and industrial supply chains. 

Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected accusations that human rights abuses take place in Xinjiang, calling it the “lie of the century.” Last month the country ratified two international human rights treaties: the Forced Labor Convention and Abolition of Forced Labor Convention. The move, while praised by the International Labor Organization, did little to assuage critics of the country’s policies. 

Later this month, United Nations Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet is expected to make a long-planned visit to China, including Xinjiang, to review conditions there. Bloomberg News