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Human rights in China

Don’t expect Donald Trump to step up and get tough on human rights abuses in Xinjiang any time soon

Owen Churchill says the Trump administration has a dismal track record on humanitarian issues, but US lawmakers have been making the right noises about the detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. Trump should listen to them and act

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 1:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 4:47am

Of the more than 630 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, not a single one has featured a public condemnation of the extrajudicial internment of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, China. 

This isn’t surprising, for two reasons. First is the Trump administration’s dismal track record in humanitarian issues. As the president happily fawns over “tough guys” like Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, his government has steadily chipped away at any prospect that it intends to hold the global community to the universal principles that the US has often espoused.

To offer a few examples: the Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Council over its supposed bias against Israel, cancelled more than US$200 million in aid to Palestine, capped the number of refugees allowed into the US at a near record low of 30,000 (which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had the gall to characterise as “expansive figures”), and forcibly separated children from families at the US-Mexico border.

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The second reason is Trump’s thinly veiled contempt for Islam and active efforts to misrepresent the religion as a threat to American life. To him, any act of violence by a Muslim is proof of the faith’s inherent danger and justification for anti-terrorism policies that disproportionately target those from a Muslim background, such as a travel ban on individuals originating from several predominantly Muslim countries.

In contrast, mass shootings by Caucasian men are dismissed with thoughts and prayers for victims and perfunctory remarks on the need for better mental health provisions – but not gun control, of course.

In the words of Sarah Sewall, former undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, the Trump administration’s view of human rights “as the rights of Christians” has determined where and why it has chosen to engage around the world and “really narrowed the aperture of human rights policy”.

Sewall, whose previous role has remained vacant since Trump took office – along with a number of other human rights positions – told me she’d be surprised if “protecting the rights of beleaguered Muslim minorities became a significant foreign policy objective in its own right”.

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To be sure, the persecution of Uygurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups in China is becoming an increasingly prominent subject of discussion in the halls of Congress, a cause that appears to have stirred welcome – and somewhat rare – bipartisan concern. Lawmakers are convening hearings, issuing reports and even proposing legislation to commit the government to taking action.

There have even been encouraging signs of engagement from members of Trump’s cabinet, including outgoing UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Vice-President Mike Pence, who became the highest-ranking official to mention Xinjiang when he included human rights abuses in a litany of the Trump administration’s grievances against China.

Yet, in a speech of more 4,000 words, Pence afforded only two sentences to the reported internment and forced re-education of up to 1 million Muslims in China, and offered no substantive suggestion as to how the US should act on its concern.

Therein lies the problem. As the Trump administration scrambles to tighten the screws on Beijing amid an escalating trade war, the plight of Uygurs in Xinjiang could all too easily become a sound bite, a tweet, more empty words.

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And while we should welcome any sign that the matter is reaching the Oval Office, history suggests that words without action will only elicit from Beijing the same routine protests about “groundless accusations” and malicious interference in “internal politics”.

Trump has a little more than two years left to claw back human rights protection, but the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang held in extrajudicial detention don’t have the luxury of time.

Listen to your lawmakers. Seek alliances with like-minded nations. Park your ego and put your “friendship” with Xi Jinping on hold. For once, be the “tough guy” and do something about Xinjiang.

Owen Churchill is a US correspondent for the Post, based in Washington