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Why US Is Raising Pressure on China Over Treatment of Tibetans, Uyghurs

Human rights advocates are welcoming what they see as increased U.S. attention to Chinese behavior in its volatile Tibet and Xinjiang regions, suggesting that lobbying by rights groups may have contributed to the surge of pressure on Beijing.

A law, a boycott and the appointment of a government official added up in late 2021 to increased U.S. resolve toward the restive Chinese regions, these advocates say.

The Muslim, ethnic Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China and ethnic Tibetans in a region of China’s Himalayas have sparred over the past half-century with the Communist government over freedom of worship and displays of their indigenous culture.

“Paying particular attention to the humanitarian crisis in East Turkestan [Xinjiang] is in America’s national interest and in line with American values and tradition to call to action whenever genocide and crimes against humanity occur, such as the case of Uyghurs,” said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress organization of exiled Uyghur groups.

“Much like the other countries in liberal democracies, Americans have this vow of ‘never again’ to allow vulnerable religious and ethnic groups subject to atrocity crimes like the Holocaust, and now the Uyghurs,” he said.

U.S. officials also are enmeshed in a nearly 4-year-old trade dispute with China as well as disagreements over Chinese territorial expansion in the seas around Asia and curbs on sharing advanced technology.

Multiple foreign governments, along with human rights advocates, say China has sent more than 1 million Uyghurs to detention camps. Beijing calls the compounds “vocational education centers” that are intended to stop the spread of religious extremism and terrorist attacks.

In Tibet, a religiously and ethnically non-Chinese region that China acquired in 1951, Beijing is increasing control over Buddhist monasteries and adding education in the Chinese language, not Tibetan. Critics of such policies are routinely detained and can receive long prison terms. 

In the past five years, Washington has called out China over its restrictions on anti-Beijing activism in Hong Kong and People’s Liberation Army flyovers in the airspace of Taiwan.

Mounting pressure

U.S. President Joe Biden cited China’s treatment of Uyghurs when announcing a diplomatic boycott this month of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

On Dec. 23, Biden signed into law the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The bill is meant to “ensure that goods made with forced labor” in Xinjiang do not enter the U.S. market. 

Targeting Tibet, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Dec. 20 designated Indian American human rights-focused undersecretary Uzra Zeya to serve concurrently as the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues. 

Underscoring the human rights element, the U.S. special coordinator will lead efforts to “advance the human rights of Tibetans” and “help preserve their distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity,” the State Department website says. 

Legislators had urged Biden in early December to meet with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to ensure a place on his agenda for Tibetans’ rights.

 

Pressure on Biden?

Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said in an interview that Biden’s focus on Tibet and Xinjiang is consistent with traditional U.S. policy, but may also have been prompted by “internal lobbying” from American human rights groups.

The labor centers are a “relatively new creation” established under Chen Quanguo, who took over in 2016 as the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington. Chen has also announced policies to limit Uyghur religious freedom. 

China replaced Chen this week in what Sun sees as a sign it wants to move beyond the labor camp policy he created in Xinjiang because the costs to Beijing’s international reputation outweigh the benefits.

Pema Doma, campaigns director at Students for a Free Tibet, credits communications from advocacy groups that warily watch China for the Biden government’s increased attention to Tibet and Xinjiang.

“It really is the bravery of human rights defenders, the ones that have survived through so much and still come out on the other side brave enough to keep speaking up against the Chinese government,” Doma told VOA.

Students for a Free Tibet wants Biden to oppose the forced assimilation of Tibetans and Uyghurs into Chinese culture, Doma said. Western nations can learn from their own histories of racial problems to prevent China from “brainwashing” Tibetans and Uyghurs.

“The Biden administration really has a responsibility to act differently than previous administrations,” she said. “It needs to break the mold, because China isn’t sitting around.”

China’s reaction

Chinese officials are rejecting now, as before, U.S. actions toward its western regions as interference. “I think China’s most recent tone is rather assertive, to say ‘don’t interfere in our domestic affairs,'” Huang said.

The official Xinhua News Service criticized the U.S. bill on sanctions against Xinjiang as “full of vicious lies” and “nothing but another desperate attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs through ‘long-arm jurisdiction.'” 

 

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