Where Is America’s Outrage over China’s Treatment of the Uighurs?
The Trump administration is reportedly considering sanctions against China in response to Beijing’s mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province. This comes after a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the situation an “ongoing human rights crisis” and urged the White House to act. Yet it will take much more than a letter from Congress for President Donald Trump to become a champion of the Uighurs’ human rights. He and his advisers will have to be convinced that elevating the plight of Chinese Muslims above other elements of the U.S.-China relationship would clearly serve the president’s agenda.
The situation in Xinjiang certainly constitutes a grave abuse of human rights. According to the United Nations, up to a million civilians are being held in internment camps on the pretext that the Uighurs, by their very existence as a distinct ethnic and cultural group, pose a threat to China’s national security. Journalists and human rights observers tell stories of forced displacement, physical and psychological torture , family separations , and other atrocities. The scale of the hellishness is difficult to comprehend. But none of this means that President Trump will respond to Beijing with a firm hand. In fact, the greater likelihood is that Trump will refrain from punishing or even criticizing China too harshly—if he does at all.
In some respects, of course, it seems painfully overdetermined that President Trump will not make human rights a defining feature of the U.S.-China relationship. Who in their right mind would expect that Donald Trump, a man who once called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” would voluntarily leap to the defense of China’s Muslim minorities? Trump has made it clear that the era of U.S. officials lecturing other countries on how to organize their internal affairs came to an end on January 20, 2017. And, in any case, Trump has actually praised President Xi Jinping for his authoritarian style of leadership.
On the other hand, Trump is more than capable of policy reversals and surprises. His decision to twice launch airstrikes against the regime in Syria, for example, flew in the face of earlier statements that the United States should not become involved in that country’s civil war. Perhaps notably, the first of these strikes w ere reported to have occurred after Trump viewed disturbing pictures of children dying from a chemical weapons attack, which convinced him of the need for decisive action against the “barbaric” government of Bashar al-Assad. Might Trump similarly be shown images of Uighurs being detained by Chinese authorities and conclude that America has a moral obligation to act? It’s not an entirely unthinkable outcome, especially as the president has previously shown himself eager to rile China over other issues such as Taiwan and trade .
Either way, domestic politics will play a significant role in determining the president’s response to the Uighur crisis. Like his predecessors, Trump will take the temperature of domestic opinion on China before deciding his next steps. If there is a significant political advantage to be derived from the Uighurs’ suffering, Trump and his advisers will seize upon the opportunity to beat Beijing with the stick of human rights—for cynical reasons if not out of genuine concern. But if the risks of antagonizing Beijing outweigh the expected benefits, then the White House will behave accordingly. As of now, the latter outcome seems most likely.
Some presidents have wanted to cast China in an unambiguously negative light to secure backing for a larger foreign-policy program. Such was the case with President Truman, who emphasized the threat posed by Chinese communism as a way to build support for the wider strategy of containment. At other times, presidents have drawn attention to the benefits of cooperation with China in hopes of rallying domestic support for engaging Beijing. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both sought to define the U.S.-China economic relationship in positive-sum terms, while President Obama frequently painted Beijing as an indispensable (if sometimes obstinate) partner in addressing a range of global challenges such as climate change.
Human rights have been a prominent feature of U.S.-China relations before. Between 1980 and 2000, China’s most-favored-nation trading status was made contingent upon an annual evaluation of Beijing’s human-rights record, which led to a ritualized (and humiliating) yearly admonishment of Chinese leaders in the U.S. Congress and news media—especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In 1992, Clinton ran for office promising to get tough on the “butchers of Beijing.” At that time, brandishing the sword of human rights seemed like a good way to score political points at home and, perhaps, engender political reforms in China.