On Monday, the Trump administration issued a blacklist against 28 Chinese organizations with links to the government’s human rights violations against the Muslim population of Xinjiang. According to the The New York Times, these companies also include SenseTime, Megvii, Yitu, Hikvision and Dahua Technology, some of the most successful names in facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology.
It should go without saying this is a rare case of humanitarianism from the Trump administration. While contradicting their cruel domestic policies, from the banning of refugees escaping the Middle East to the neglectful harm waged against those crossing the southern border, the decision does come almost a full year since the U.N. report which revealed China’s camps against the Uighur population — an ethnically Muslim minority in the country’s western provinces. The investigation found the prisoners were subjected to mandatory propaganda studies, the forced feeding and drinking of known haram substances, waterboard torture for government insubordination, as well as live organ harvesting.
“[We’ve] determined that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) [and the] People’s Government Public Security Bureau… are engaging in activities contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States, and eight additional entities are enabling activities contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States,” the department stated in their report. “Specifically, these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.”
In response, China signaled this decision would result in further backlash against the Trump administration. When reporters asked foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang how this could escalate the US-China trade war, he simply denied the program exists, despite there being over a million missing Chinese citizens held in captivity, telling reporters to “stay tuned” on further action. “We urge the U.S. side to immediately correct its mistake, withdraw the relevant decision and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Geng said. “China will continue to take firm and forceful measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
In turn, the administration still appears committed to furthering basic human rights standards in the region. “The U.S. government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “This action will ensure that our technologies, fostered in an environment of individual liberty and free enterprise, are not used to repress defenseless minority populations.” When pressed on whether this was tied to an impending trade war with China, the department’s spokesman denied the accusation… despite this resulting in a strict ban against US companies from conducting business with these Chinese entities without being granted a US government license.
According to Business Insider, the Chinese government could subvert these plans through both common loopholes in the law, such as using subsidiary companies, as well as denying their role in the crisis entirely. Hu Lianhe, a senior official with the Chinese government agency overseeing China’s ethnic cleansing, skirts these accusations by saying “there is no arbitrary detention” against Muslims, implying the population is either fake news or can somehow be justified, whether on an individual or collective basis. The official explanation seems to be one of preventing religious extremist violence in China from the Uighurs.
The Washington Post secured interviews with 21 Kazakhstani nationals — including three former camp detainees — who made similar claims about their state’s treatment, all of whom were independent actors with no prior connection to one another. “We are really talking here about a humanitarian emergency,” said Adrian Zenz, a specialist on Xinjiang for the European School of Culture and Theology in Berlin, who spoke with the New York Times. “This is a very targeted political re-education effort that is seeking to change the core identity and belief system of an entire people. On that scale it’s pretty unprecedented.”
There’s no question about whether the camps are a reality, it’s a matter of how countries respond. “In the name of combating religious extremism and maintaining social stability, [China has turned Xinjiang province] into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of ‘no rights zone’,” said Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in a Geneva speech from last year. “We call on China to end their counterproductive policies and free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained.”
A federal blacklist, while fundamentally necessary, is both the least the country can do and not as unprecedented as it may seem. Earlier this year, the US officially blacklisted Huawei and 140 other companies over unspecified “national security concerns”. This move simply expands previous requirements against those with human rights concerns, begging the question of how national security games and phoney trade wars continue to take priority over legitimate humanitarianism. If you’ve been paying attention to politics, perhaps the answer is obvious. Nevertheless, even political optimists such as myself are losing faith in the human rights fight by the day.