US sanctions China over Uigurs’ rights abuse: Donald Trump signs Uygur human rights bill into US law

New law also requires a State Department report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including estimates of how many people have been detained in camps

Topic |   US-China relations


Owen Churchill


US President Donald Trump signed into law a bill authorising sanctions against Chinese officials over the mass internment of Muslim ethnic minority groups in China’s northwest on Wednesday, amid damning allegations by a former adviser that Trump privately expressed his approval to Chinese President Xi Jinping of the camps last year.

Trump, who has previously complained of human rights legislation complicating his dealings with China, quietly signed the bill into law with no cameras present, more than a week after a united Congress sent it to his desk with a vetoproof majority.


, the legislation requires greater US scrutiny of potential human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and demands that Chinese officials deemed responsible for violations be subject to economic sanctions and barred from entering the US.

The legislation was introduced last year in response to the Chinese government’s establishment of mass internment facilities in Xinjiang for what it claims to be voluntary “vocational” education aimed at countering religious extremism.


US House of Representatives sends Uygur Human Rights Policy Act to Trump’s desk for approval

US House of Representatives sends Uygur Human Rights Policy Act to Trump’s desk for approval

A series of leaks of internal government documents have challenged that narrative, building a picture of a network of tightly guarded facilities and top-down directives from Chinese Communist Party leaders to “round up everyone who should be rounded up”.

The bill became law on Wednesday as new incendiary details from an upcoming memoir by former US national security adviser John Bolton came to light. In an excerpt published by The Wall Street Journal, Bolton wrote that Trump had communicated his approval of the camps to Xi during a meeting in Osaka in June 2019.

Citing an interpreter present for the private conversation, Bolton, who left the administration last September, wrote that the US leader had told Xi he should go ahead with building the camps, “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do”.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the claim.

Beyond sanctions, the new law requires a report by the FBI into efforts by Chinese government actors to harass Uygurs living in the US and a report from the US State Department into the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including estimates of how many people have been detained in the camps.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Washington decried the bill’s enactment, describing the legislation as “a grave violation of the international law and basic norms governing international relations and serious interference in China’s internal affairs”.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of a government-run Uygur detainment camp in Dabancheng, Xinjiang, in 2018. Photo: Reuters

When similar legislation passed the US House of Representatives in December, Beijing vowed that it would take countermeasures.

The bill’s enactment was welcomed on Capitol Hill, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio calling it “a historic step in support of Uyghur Muslims worldwide and against China’s egregious human rights abuses and probable crimes against humanity”.

Human rights have seldom featured in Trump’s public railing against China – his grievances tend to revolve around trade and economic issues and have not extended to the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

During his three-and-a-half years in office, he has addressed China’s treatment of the Uygur people only once, describing as “tough stuff” the testimony of a Uygur activist during an Oval Office meeting last July.

Trump has also previously complained that human rights legislation enacted in November in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong could complicate his relationship with Beijing, with whom his administration has been engaged in trade negotiations for almost two years.

A map showing 27 reeducation camps in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang.

But amid a battle with his presidential opponent Joe Biden over who is tougher on China, Trump has in recent months embraced broader confrontation with Beijing, seeking to portray the Chinese government as solely responsible for the coronavirus outbreak and responding aggressively to its moves to enact a national security law in Hong Kong.

China will be one of the core areas in which the Trump campaign will play to voters’ fears this election season, citing sources familiar with its planning.

But the White House gave no indication on Wednesday whether it welcomed the Uygur legislation, and pushed back against one of the bill’s provisions requiring the executive branch to give prior warning to Congress if it decided to terminate inadmissibility sanctions against an individual.

Citing possible impact on Trump’s ability to receive visiting officials, the White House said in a statement that the administration would “not treat the provision’s requirement for advance notice as binding to the extent that it interferes with the president’s conduct of diplomacy”.

Indeed, like much legislation, the extent to which the new bill shapes US policy will depend largely on how the executive branch decides to implement it.

For example, it falls on the administration to identify which, if any, Chinese officials should be subject to sanctions. And even in cases where individuals are identified, the administration can choose to issue waivers, though it must justify any such decisions to Congress.

“No legislation, no legal tools are perfect, but this is the best we have,” said Nury Turkel, a Washington-based Uygur rights advocate recently appointed to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Leaving China can mean losing your family for Uygur Muslims

Leaving China can mean losing your family for Uygur Muslims

Calling on the US administration not to hold back on sanctions or allow the Uygur issue to become a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, Turkel said the benefit of implementing the law’s provisions “outweighs the cost that may negatively affect some of the strategic issues”.

“As a nation that cares for human rights around the world, we need to set an example – and this is long overdue,” said Turkel, expressing hope that the law will pave the way for similar responses from US allies.

Xinjiang re-education camps - Wikipedia | WordDisk

It is the first time any government had passed a law addressing the social, economic, cultural and religious rights of Uygurs, said Turkel, who particularly welcomed the provisions requiring oversight from US law enforcement on apparent efforts by Chinese authorities to harass members of the Uygur diaspora.

Numerous members of the overseas Uygur community have reported being either contacted by local officials from Xinjiang or told by family members still living there not to speak out about their situation.

As well as reports from the FBI, the new bill requires that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence deliver to Congress within six months an assessment of the national security and economic threats posed by Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, including the implications of surveillance technology developed for and deployed in the region.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Trump signs off on Uygur bill, clearing way for sanctions

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