Trump versus his Uyghur policy

Last month, US President Donald Trump signed into law a bill allowing him to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass incarceration of more than one million Uyghurs and members of other largely Muslim minorities in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. The bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA) condemned the abuses and called on the Chinese authorities to close their ‘vocational education’ centres in the region immediately, ensure respect for human rights, and allow people living in China to re-establish contact with family, friends and associates outside the country.

In theory, Trump could show genuine global leadership by implementing the act vigorously. Researchers in many countries have reported that, in addition to detention, Uyghurs are being subjected to torture, forced labour and sterilisation. And two Uyghur groups have accused the Chinese authorities of physical and cultural genocide in a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court.

Anne Applebaum has compared Western indifference to what is happening in Xinjiang today with the wilful determination of European governments and the Vatican to ignore the famine Joseph Stalin engineered in Ukraine in 1932–33, and the Nazi concentration camps a decade later. One might add more recent examples to the list. Viewed against this background, the United States’ willingness to condemn China’s behaviour and impose costs for it, even if only with individual sanctions, is a step in the right direction.

Moreover, this step might well gain the attention of Muslims in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey. The Pakistani and Indonesian governments are willing to play by Chinese rules in order to secure investment; Pakistan signed a letter last year defending China’s treatment of Uyghurs, while the Indonesian government says that it ‘will not meddle in the internal affairs of China’. Turkey initially offered Uyghurs asylum in the 1950s when Chinese communists took over Xinjiang. Today, Turkish police are reportedly arresting Uyghur activists and sending them without explanation to deportation centres, sometimes for months.

In this context, a broad US-led effort to hold the Chinese government even partly to international account for its treatment of Uyghurs—particularly at a time when America is having to reckon with its own current and past racist crimes—could mark an important turning point. At the very least, it would remind China that the world is watching.

Sadly, Trump’s actions will likely convince Muslims only of the depths of his hypocrisy. Trump signed the UHRPA on the same day that allegations contained in his former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book were flooding the airwaves. According to Bolton, Trump was not merely indifferent towards Uyghurs’ human rights, but actively encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to build concentration camps to hold them.

Then there are Trump’s own Muslim travel bans. The initial ban, issued in January 2017, barred all refugees and immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US; the measure was struck down by the courts and then revised several times until it passed constitutional muster. Since then, numerous stories have emerged demonstrating the devastating and potentially life-threatening impact of these restrictions on refugees, Muslims and non-Muslims living in the designated countries.

One of those affected is Afkab Hussein, a former Somali refugee now living in Columbus, Ohio. Afkab has been waiting since 2015 for his wife and young children to join him in the US, but Trump’s bans have prevented them from doing so. Trump’s support for a law that calls on the Chinese authorities to permit re-establishment of contact between people in China and outside the country therefore rings hollow.

The UHRPA also accuses the Chinese government of ‘using wide-scale, internationally-linked threats of terrorism as a pretext to justify pervasive restrictions on and serious human rights violations’ against Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang. But Trump’s executive orders seeking to bar Muslims from entering the US included similar clauses.

His first executive order cited the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US as a justification for banning refugees and immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, despite the absence of evidence that citizens of any of these countries, much less refugees, carried out the attacks. Subsequent iterations of the ban continued to cite terrorism as a rationale. In practice, however, the Trump administration has merely blocked family members from joining loved ones in the US, and reduced admissions of vulnerable refugees to historically low levels.

The tension between Trump’s belated embrace of Uyghur rights and his all-too-evident dislike of Muslims (unless they are Saudi princes) raises the deeper question of who the ultimate audience is for America’s—or any country’s—foreign policy. Ordinary Muslims can have no doubt about how Trump feels about them, no matter what he might say to their governments. They only have to follow his Twitter feed or watch his press conferences.

Trump is the first US president to disdain normal processes for crafting and vetting official statements, preferring instead to engage directly with US voters and citizens of other countries via social media. But although he has mobilised a large constituency, he has also succeeded in alienating large segments of the public in America and elsewhere. His denigration of entire populations—such as calling Mexicans rapists or Muslims terrorists—resonate louder and longer than any official statements issued by the White House or the US State Department.

It remains to be seen whether those impressions will outlast Trump’s presidency. The US House of Representatives just passed the ‘No Ban Act’, which would repeal the Muslim travel ban and prevent the use of religious discrimination to bar immigrants. And if a new US administration succeeds Trump following November’s presidential election, it will have to address other countries’ governments and citizens with one voice—and without the glaring hypocrisy to which they have grown accustomed.