In his haunting 1956 memoir “Night,” Elie Wiesel recounts the horrors he endured during the Holocaust and how indifference to the suffering of millions shook his faith in humanity. In the book’s 2006 preface, he explains that his manuscript was originally “rejected by every major publisher.” Then he notes a seachange 50 years later. Students read “Night” in schools. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington had already hosted more than 22 million visitors. Survivors like Elie Wiesel, Jews around the world, and ultimately the whole world refused to allow the unspeakable to be forgotten.
But today, Uyghurs are afraid that policymakers are normalizing China’s ongoing genocide of our people. A parade of foreign leaders are visiting Beijing to make deals and appeal to the Chinese leadership to cooperate on global crises, without saying a single word about the atrocities against our people.
Is it normal to treat a genocidaire as a partner in “responsible global governance,” in the words of U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last month? Apparently so, if the genocidaire is the Chinese government.
International enforcement of human rights sanctions is being put to the test by these visits.
Only after a public outcry did the United States confirm that a top Hong Kong official will not be given a sanctions waiver to attend the APEC Summit in San Francisco in November. Chief Executive John Lee is under Global Magnitsky human rights sanctions, and any visit to the U.S. should have been completely off the table from the start. Beijing put Lee in charge of crushing democracy in Hong Kong – a city with a once-unthinkable 1,500 political prisoners. But the Chinese government has no shame in pushing back and demanding he be allowed to travel to the United States despite the sanctions.
This wasn’t an isolated case. In February, a key architect of the Uyghur genocide was all set to meet officials in London and Brussels, a trip cancelled only after an international outcry. Xinjiang governor Erkin Tuniyaz’s trip should have been a non-starter. His deputy was already under U.K. and EU Global Magnitsky sanctions, and Tuniyaz himself has been under U.S. Global Magnitsky sanctions since 2021.
My life has been dedicated to bringing attention to the atrocities unfolding in East Turkestan, where the Uyghur people face an ongoing genocide. In the past six years, the world has learned about the shocking scale of the abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples, including an estimated 2 to 3 million people detained without charge or trial in a giant mass internment program, forced sterilizations, and forced labor.
With yet another upcoming U.S. trip to Beijing in late August, by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the current effort to warm official relations between the United States and China is truly alarming to Uyghurs. We fear that the lessons of history will once more be overlooked and perpetrators of crimes against humanity will escape accountability
Every visit by a U.S. official contributes to the alarming prospect of normalizing the Uyghur genocide. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing in June was preceded by a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, and followed by the visit of Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and then U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
Other messaging by U.S. officials has further alarmed the Uyghur community. At a July 20 House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party hearing, “The Biden Administration’s PRC Strategy,” Kritenbrink did not once mention the Uyghur genocide, an issue that officials have repeatedly assured us is a core part of the U.S. government agenda on China. In a July 23 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakara, Blinken remarked that U.S. national security sanctions imposed on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu “don’t prevent the minister from engaging or us engaging with him.” Uyghurs can only ask, does this apply to human rights sanctions too?
The achievements of the administration’s Beijing visits and the outcomes of the effort to improve “lines of communication” with China are yet to be determined. One thing is already clear: These visits – one featuring a bow to Xi Jinping – are a propaganda win for the Chinese party-state, which is ever keen to demonstrate China’s stature as a world power.
The exact nature of the discussions between U.S. and Chinese officials, frank or not, is immaterial to Chinese state media. The message to Xi’s domestic audience is that the United States has come to China to seek an audience and China’s position is validated.
To the Chinese government, the U.S. has inadvertently sent a message that the issue of the Uyghur genocide can be swept aside. As a result, Uyghurs are even more bereft of hope for justice and accountability for the perpetrators of their suffering.
Understandably, Uyghurs are frustrated and disillusioned by the world’s inability to end their nightmare. They know all too well from many years of observation how consecutive democratic governments that seek “constructive engagement” with China only end up emboldening Beijing’s repressive regime. Worse, any quid pro quo on easing pressure over human rights for cooperation, such as ending Chinese companies’ shipments to Mexico of chemicals used in fentanyl production, sends all the wrong messages.
Without a doubt, the U.S. government has taken a significantly more proactive stance in responding to the genocide compared to other nations. The United States has implemented 117 targeted sanctions, not only against officials but also companies involved in constructing and benefiting from the surveillance state and state-imposed forced labor.
However, a serious U.S. opposition to genocide requires a renewed effort to punish individuals and entities engaged in crimes against humanity. The actions must be decisive or Beijing will not take notice. At a minimum, we need more targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the abuses. Given the scale of the ongoing genocide and China’s official policy to require universal forced labor of Uyghurs, why have there been no sanctions since December 2021?
Further, a notable and substantial oversight in the U.S. approach lies in the treatment of Uyghur asylum seekers. The U.S. Task Force on Atrocity Prevention, which launched the inaugural “U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities” in May 2022, must address the asylum backlog. Essential agencies within the task force should engage with the Uyghur American community and take necessary actions to expedite asylum application decisions, ensuring swift and efficient processes.
It is essential to recognize that ignoring human suffering not only compromises the principles upon which the United States was founded but also exacerbates the plight of those enduring the Uyghur genocide. The horrors of the past should serve as a stark warning, reminding us that looking past atrocities only compounds human suffering. Drawing parallels to Elie Wiesel’s message in “Night,” we are reminded of the consequences of waning interest and the dangers of normalizing genocide.
The Uyghurs are waiting for the world to stand up for their survival as a people. Let us not forget the past or ignore the present, but instead, let us unite in the pursuit of justice, solidarity, and compassion for all oppressed peoples.