On December 4, 2019, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of a bill that was critical of Chinese human rights abuses of the country’s Uyghur population in a press conference: “U.S. politicians are talking about ‘conscience’ with China on ethnic minorities. What ignorance, what brazenness, what hypocrisy! Have they forgotten? The two-century long American history is tainted with the blood and tears of native Indians, who were originally master of the continent.” Similarly, after then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s conspicuously timed January 19 determination that the Chinese state has committed acts of genocide against the Uyghurs, a columnist for a Chinese state-affiliated media outlet responded to Pompeo on Twitter: “What is a genocide is that U.S. government disastrous pandemic responce [sic] resulted in the deaths of 400,000 Americans. Yes, 400,000, an astronomical number. I am not even talking about the total decimation of Native Americans.”
This “whataboutism” appears frequently on social media, and the argument that U.S. treatment of Native Americans gives officials no room to criticize China’s persecution of the Uyghurs is not just cheap talk. Public rhetorical contestation is fundamental to world politics, and in the face of a rising power seeking to legitimize human rights abuses, U.S. officials can productively respond to this particular talking point in three ways.
First, U.S. officials need to get their history right. Chinese officials have sought to use purported American hypocrisy to undermine any criticism of their own policies for decades. But the charge that the United States committed genocide against Native Americans is valid. American violence, neglect, disease, and ecological disruption contributed to a process that from 1492 onward has led to the deaths of millions and myriad lingering effects. U.S. officials ought not to hide that behind a whitewashed version of history, such as that presented by the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission report. Early U.S. policymakers, including George Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, evinced at least an occasional understanding that if the new government behaved maliciously toward Native nations, it would be a stain on the country’s reputation well into the future. They and subsequent policymakers nonetheless pursued policies that brought about the dispossession of Native Americans, and it should not be surprising that other states would use this history against the United States. Such openness in acknowledging historical realities – and in noting similarities in Chinese history – would allow U.S. officials to note the insecure opacity behind which China is violating the human rights of Uyghurs.
Beyond transparency, U.S. officials also have more positive aspects of recent history that they can juxtapose with Chinese policies. Over the past century, the United States has taken steps to better honor its commitments to Indigenous communities, efforts that have remained imperfect and intermittent but that include the Indian Claims Act of 1946, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. While such correctives have not fully addressed the desires of many individuals and tribal governments, these reforms give U.S. officials some room for a rejoinder to their Chinese counterparts. Past genocides do not justify current ones, especially given subsequent commitments to human rights, and if anything, the Chinese government could learn from U.S. efforts at redress, incomplete though they may be.
Finally, responding to this Chinese whataboutism is not solely a matter of foreign policy. Rather, U.S. officials can best demonstrate the hollowness of Chinese claims by working to improve the lives of Native Americans. It should not be the case that international competition is needed to spur such work, and there is little consensus (including within and across tribes) about how the federal government ought to do so. But initial steps could include the restoration or preservation of Native lands, increased federal funding for existing institutions like Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and enhanced political representation for tribal governments. Whether or not they are paired with a more ambitious program of apologies, reparations, and/or truth and reconciliation processes, such policies are not without their tradeoffs. But a Biden administration that makes a sustained commitment to taking these issues more seriously than its predecessors – and the nomination of Representative Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior suggests that it will – could go a long way toward responding to China’s whataboutism on its persecution of Uyghurs.
I conclude by addressing two questions. Why should U.S. officials respond to this? And would a response of this sort do any good for the Uyghurs? First, public rhetoric need not be articulated in good faith to be impactful, and even if this Chinese whataboutism is more for domestic audiences than international ones, the United States can best win “hearts and minds” (and retain the already-converted within its alliance networks) by fully addressing even those issues that may at first seem difficult or embarrassing to acknowledge. Moreover, as others have argued, U.S. officials can and should rhetorically push back on China – and any other countries that advance similar arguments – without being racist or xenophobic.
The second question, however, deserves further scrutiny. Neither international relations scholars nor policymakers have come to a consensus on the conditions that would allow the United States to have a substantial, positive effect on the lives of Uyghurs in the near term, to say nothing of what costs the United States could or should be willing to bear for the sake of doing so. But if U.S. officials want to press this issue, as it appears they do, they can respond to China’s specious analogy with a forthright account of American history, an emphasis on recent reforms, and a rededication to the righting of past wrongs.
Andrew A. Szarejko is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His work has been published in outlets such as the Journal of Global Security Studies, PS: Political Science and Politics, American Indian Quarterly, and Indian Country Today. He received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University in 2020.