Johns Hopkins University Press

Human rights has been a contentious issue in US-China relations from their very beginning. In the early years the issue was one-way, with Washington constantly criticizing political, legal, and social inequities in Mao's China. China has fought back, pointing to deficiencies in the US system while proceeding in recent years to implement a large-scale program of detention and incarceration targeting Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Neither the United States nor any other country or international organization can compel adherence to human rights norms in China. But setting an example of such adherence does get noticed, and if a president Biden aligns with Black Lives Matter, respects the rule of law, refuses to endorse dictators, and urges the US Senate to approve and ratify all the UN conventions on human rights, he might be more persuasive in urging Beijing to change its direction on human rights. But this is only conceivable if pursued in the context of a new US policy of competitive coexistence with China, and not strategic confrontation.


human rights, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, rule of law, UN conventions, Black Lives Matter

Human rights has been a contentious issue in US-China relations from their very beginning. In the early years the issue was one-way, with Washington constantly criticizing political, legal, and social inequities in Mao's China. Buddhist repression in Tibet was a frequent US target as well. But China has fought back in recent decades, pointing to deficiencies in the US system. Now, thanks in no small part to social media, human rights violations cannot be hidden anywhere; they can be written about by victims and secretly filmed from the sky. The truth will always be denied by the perpetrators, but words and video speak louder. [End Page 83]

The roundup and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people of a specific ethnic or religious group has all too many precedents in modern history. The fact that the group under examination here—Uyghurs and other Muslims in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—is being subjected to forced assimilation and other gross violations of human rights has led some observers to charge China with cultural genocide. It could be more than that, depending on one's reading of the Genocide Convention.1 In the eyes of the Chinese authorities, however, Xinjiang presents a national security issue that demands suppression ("reeducation" and "training"), surveillance ("counter-terrorism"), and invasion of the privacy of over 1 million Muslims. Add Xinjiang to the list of places where an oppressive state abuses the meaning of "national security" in order to impose total control.

In the Name of Social Stability

Under Xi Jinping's leadership, the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been under constant watch and official coercion (Ramzy and Buckley 2019). A once-legitimate concern about attacks on Han Chinese, in particular a stabbing incident in 2014 that took thirty-one lives, has evolved into an entirely illegitimate and inhumane detention and incarceration program. The figures are staggering; One expert, Dr. Adrian Zenz, estimates the number of people detained in Xinjiang camps at 1.8 million (Lipes 2019).2 Other estimates range from just under 1 million to 1.5 million. Initially, "reeducation" sought to replace Muslim culture with Han culture, in every way from language to smoking. Hundreds of dissident Uyghur, Kazakh, and other indigenous writers and other intellectuals were whisked away, imprisoned or simply "disappeared," according to anthropology professor Magnus Fiskesjö of Cornell University. At the same time, Chinese hackers were embedding malware in smartphones to track Uyghurs' movements and conversations, even when they left China, thus going far beyond anything George Orwell might have imagined (Mozur and Perlroth 2020).

Enhancing this surveillance campaign is a nationwide system of facial recognition technology, street cameras, and, most ominously, DNA collection (Simon 2019). China's ministry of public security has announced plans to obtain the DNA via blood samples of tens of millions of male adults and children. Xinjiang and Tibet are just the starting point. The resulting data base will be sufficient to cover virtually the entire population and give the police additional capacity to pressure the families of criminals, real and political (Wee 2020). [End Page 84]

There is also evidence that the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are seeking to suppress the birth rates of Uyghurs through enforced birth control and forced sterilization. The decline in the birthrate for Uyghurs is several times the national average in some parts of the province, leading some observers to call the situation outright genocide (Tharoor 2020). Dr. Zenz is among them, having found that birth control is being vigorously enforced among Uyghur women. He draws an ominous conclusion: "These findings raise serious concerns as to whether Beijing's policies in Xinjiang represent, in fundamental respects, what might be characterised as a demographic campaign of genocide" (Agence France-Presse 2020).

Beijing's control is evidently complete enough that the Chinese authorities are assigning Uyghurs to other provinces for labor once they have completed reeducation (SCMP Reporters 2020). This program, temporarily halted when the coronavirus hit, has now resumed. Beijing sees the labor assignment as vindication of its reeducation; the "graduates" have supposedly shown that the internment camps really are just schools. But by now the evidence is overwhelming that what is actually occurring is a form of forced labor that further separates families and breaks up ethnic communities with the aim of destroying their primary identity.

What Can Be Done?

Is there anything the international community can do to mitigate the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang? Three actions are already being taken. First is naming and shaming, such as by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in a joint statement of twenty-two countries, in July 2019, and by the European Union. Second is boycotting companies that invest in Xinjiang. Third is blocking World Bank or other international funds that might go to the Xinjiang authorities. Since then, fifty independent UN human rights experts have issued an extraordinary call in June 2020, saying they "believe it is time for renewed attention on the human rights situation in the country, particularly in light of the moves against the people of the Hong Kong SAR, minorities of the Xinjiang [Uyghur] Autonomous Region, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and human rights defenders across the country" (UN News 2020).

All such efforts to bring light to the darkness surrounding Beijing's repression may be of little avail. But attacking the problem at the technological [End Page 85] end, to hurt suppliers and buyers alike, may prove more effective. Two US companies, Promega and Thermo Fisher Scientific, have been important suppliers of facial recognition and DNA technology used by Chinese public security officials to identify Uyghurs and other minorities (Batke and Ohlberg 2020). German companies, including Volkswagen, Siemens, and BASF, are also either investing or manufacturing in Xinjiang (Fulda 2020), as are Chinese technology firms. US sanctions have been slapped on over thirty Chinese entities to prevent access to this technology (US Department of Commerce 2020). Thermo Fisher, one of the US companies that supplies genetic sequencers to the Xinjiang police, asserts it has stopped doing business there, in keeping with its "ethical code" (Khan 2019). But it is unclear if that commitment extends to other Chinese police forces, to other DNA technology that could be used to control populations, and to several other countries where the company has customers.

In June President Trump signed a Uyghur human rights bill. But US credibility has been damaged by the revelations in John Bolton's memoir that Trump privately gave Xi a pass on Xinjiang as well as Hong Kong (Bolton 2020). At a meeting in Osaka in 2019, according to Bolton, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building camps for the Uyghurs—"exactly the right thing to do." And on Hong Kong, Trump refused to weigh in on behalf of the pro-democracy demonstrators, saying "We have human rights problems too"—a view consistent with his earlier reported "deal" with Xi to downplay US criticism on Hong Kong provided the trade deal went through. (The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, passed in both houses of Congress, sanctions banks and Chinese officials rather than directly supporting pro-democracy advocates.) As Bolton reports, these comments were really all about Trump's reelection hopes, "alluding to China's economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he'd win." Knowing Trump's real priorities, and his administration's attitude toward Muslims and other human-rights victims, Chinese leaders have reason to scoff at American protestations.

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers to the general problem of alleviating a nation-state's human rights conditions, even genocide, through international action. As we have seen in cases ranging from US arms supplies to authoritarian governments to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia [End Page 86] and Syria's use of chemical weapons, responding to systematic violations of human rights rarely has priority over "national security" interests, let alone the interests of the "global community" and United Nations conventions. Appeals and ethical guidelines are certainly welcome, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW)'s proposal that international companies "urgently evaluate how their products and services are being used [in China], and who their customers are. Any firm that cannot show it has assessed the human rights impact of its commercial activities and mitigated harm in what United Nations experts have labeled a 'no rights zone' should do so now" (Richardson 2019). The wider the network of independent international groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that support HRW's proposal, the greater the chance that China will be deprived of the means of repression. A substantial victory would be if China's police could be persuaded to destroy DNA files that have nothing to do with criminal wrongdoing and stop indiscriminate collection of blood samples (Dirks and Leipold 2020).

We have to realize, however, that China's leaders, like most other government leaders, do not respond well to outside criticism and even less to accepting independent investigations of their actions. Hong Kong is another case in point. International pressure is mounting on China for using a new national security law to repress pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong. Dozens of activists and journalists have been arrested and Legislative Council elections have been suspended as Beijing now proclaims the right to "supervise" Hong Kong's internal affairs, in violation of the Basic Law that is supposed to protect Hong Kong's autonomy. China's "one country, two systems" principle seems to have been jettisoned.3 But there is no evidence that taking away Hong Kong's special trade and financial status, decoupling the US and China economies, sanctioning Hong Kong's pro-China leaders, or forging a stronger US-European Union alignment against China—all steps Washington has taken—will force Beijing to reevaluate its human rights policies.

One other thing: a word of caution about criticism of China. Though it is fully warranted, we should not be self-righteous about repression there. Few countries are free of religious, political, or social oppression. Few have eschewed violent official responses to mass protest. Fewer still are the governments that have recognized, much less apologized and compensated for, the harm they have done in the name of social stability. We in America are now being forcefully, and rightly, reminded of these realities, for in fact our human rights record over many years is hardly exemplary. And in the Trump era, that record has worsened thanks to the president's embrace of right- and left-wing dictators and [End Page 87] indifference to racial justice. The scale of China's human rights abuses may have no current counterpart, but it also falls within a depressing global pattern that embraces even the most "developed" and "democratic" countries.

The struggle against abuses in one's homeland is also a struggle against abuses abroad. I expect that if Joe Biden is elected president, widespread human rights violations such as are occurring in China and on America's streets will receive high-priority attention. And the latter will affect the former, for only a serious and successful effort to promote and protect human rights at home can have credibility abroad. Not that the United States or any other country or international organization can compel adherence to human rights norms in China. But setting an example of such adherence does get noticed, and if Biden—contrary to Trump—aligns with Black Lives Matter, respects the rule of law, refuses to endorse dictators, and urges the US Senate to approve and ratify all the UN conventions on human rights, he might be more persuasive in urging Beijing to change its direction on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. That last point is only conceivable if pursued in the context of a new US policy of competitive coexistence with China, and not strategic confrontation. [End Page 88]

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov is Senior Editor of Asian Perspective and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon. His latest book is America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He can be reached at


1. Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention, 1948), to which China is a party, the international crime of genocide may mean, besides killing members of a group, "(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

2. For a BBC video that strikingly displays the roundup and transport of Uyghur prisoners, see

3. The new national security law basically eviscerates Hong Kong's previous right to "enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government" (Buckley, Bradsher, and Yu 2020).


Agence France-Presse. 2020. "China Sterilising Ethnic Minority Women in Xinjiang, Report Says." The Guardian, June 29.
Batke, Jessica, and Mareike Ohlberg. 2020. "China's Biosecurity State in Xinjiang Is Powered by Western Tech." Foreign Policy, February 19.
Bolton, John. 2020. The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Buckley, Chris, Keith Bradsher, and Elaine Yu. 2020. "Law Will Tighten Beijing's Grip on Hong Kong with Chinese Security Force." New York Times, June 21.
Dirks, Emile, and James Leipold. 2020. "Genomic Surveillance." Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 17.
Fulda, Andreas. 2020. "Germany's China Policy of 'Change Through Trade' Has Failed." Royal United Services Institute, June 1.
Khan, Natasha. 2019. "American Firm, Citing Ethics Code, Won't Sell Genetic Sequences in Xinjiang." Wall Street Journal, February 20.
Lipes, Joshua. 2019. "Expert Says 1.8 Million Uyghurs, Muslim Minorities Held in Xinjiang's Internment Camps." Radio Free Asia, November 24.
Mozur, Paul, and Nicole Perlroth. 2020. "China Software Stalked Uighurs Earlier and More Widely, Researchers Learn." New York Times, July 1.
Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. 2019. "'Absolutely No Mercy': Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims." New York Times, November 16.
Richardson, Sophie. 2019. "Thermo Fisher's Necessary, But Insufficient, Step in China." Human Rights Watch, February 22.
SCMP Reporters. 2020. "China Plans to Send Uygur Muslims From Xinjiang Re-education Camps to Work in Other Parts of Country." South China Morning Post, May 2.
Simon, Scott. 2019. "Uighurs and Genetic Surveillance in China." National Public Radio, December 7.
Tharoor, Ishaan. 2020. "China's Campaign of 'Genocide' Could Bring the U.S. and E.U. Closer Together." Washington Post, June 29.
UN News. 2020. "Independent Human Rights Experts Call for Decisive Measures to Protect 'Fundamental Freedoms' in China." June 26.
US Department of Commerce. 2020. "Nine Chinese Entities Related to Human Rights Abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to the Entity List," May 22.
Wee, Sui-Lee. 2020. "China Is Collecting DNA from Tens of Millions of Men and Boys, Using U.S. Equipment." New York Times, June 17.

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