US lawmakers aren't buying what Beijing is selling about reality of Xinjiang detention camps

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 04.12, 12/12/2019
US lawmakers aren't buying what Beijing is selling about reality of Xinjiang detention camps

As Beijing steps up its defence of its mass internment measures targeting Muslims in China's far west, one key target of its messaging campaign remains decidedly unconvinced: the US Congress.

On Monday, representatives of the regional government in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region said that all "trainees" in what China calls vocational training centres have "graduated" and found stable employment.

Efforts to rebut accusations of a campaign to forcibly bring ethnic minority groups in the region into line have failed to win over foreign governments and international human rights watchdogs. And Uygurs living overseas point to silence from their relatives in Xinjiang as proof they are either still detained or otherwise subjected to limits on their freedom.

The regional government's chairman, Shohrat Zakir, reserved his strongest words for Washington, where lawmakers are scrambling to push through human rights legislation targeting Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang before Congress breaks for its holiday recess.

Shohrat Zakir, chairman of China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, speaks at a press conference in Beijing on Monday. Photo: AP

Backers of the UIGHUR Act, as the legislation is called, are in violation of "international law" and guilty of "ideological prejudice", said Zakir, who is also the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) deputy secretary for Xinjiang.

"The Chinese government's claim that everyone in Xinjiang's modern-day concentration camps has 'graduated' is a ludicrous attempt to ease or deflect international pressure," said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and author of the original legislation on which the current bill is based.

The Senate passed Rubio's bill in September, but is now processing a substantially bolstered version that the House of Representatives approved last week. Among the amendments is a provision to tighten export controls on China-bound US technology and committal language directing the US administration to identify and sanction Chinese officials found responsible for human rights violations.

One Democratic congressional staff member said that Beijing's claims had not convinced lawmakers and would not impede the bill's momentum.

"They seem to come and threaten, and no one really responds to that," said the staffer. "Just like they don't respond to us threatening them."

"It is of course quite the timing for them to put this (defence of the internment facilities) out right now in the heat of criticism," said Adrian Zenz, a scholar whose research into the mass internment camps, based largely on government documents, has shed light on the scale and objectives of the campaign.

Speaking on the sideline of a recent panel event on Capitol Hill, home to some of the international community's loudest voices of criticism, Zenz said the Chinese government was starting to realise it was "not getting away with a flat denial".

"The problem is they're also not getting away with the claim that everybody has been released," said Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism. "Because it's simply not credible."

A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region in December 2018. Photo: AP

Even if every person had indeed been released from the "vocational training centres", there were a number of other institutions - ranging from judicial and extrajudicial facilities to factories in which former detainees were made to perform involuntary labour - that would absorb those allowed to leave, said Zenz.

Beside lawmakers and experts, the Trump administration, too, indicated this week that its concerns over Xinjiang were far from allayed.

The US government "remained deeply concerned with China's repressive campaign in Xinjiang", a senior Treasury Department official, when asked about the latest messaging from the Chinese government, said during a recent background briefing with reporters.

And on Tuesday, the administration's special envoy for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, renewed calls for Beijing "to open up the books, to open up the situation, let people … from the outside view what's taking place in these internment camps".

In the past, the Chinese government's claims that the mass internment facilities function as a humane and legitimate response to the threat of religious extremism have not stopped the US from taking action. In October, the departments of State and Commerce announced sanctions against dozens of officials, government bodies and private companies over their alleged role in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Another senior US official said during the background briefing that the government would be "considering other actions as appropriate".

As well as Congress and the Trump administration, China's attempts to defend its measures in Xinjiang have predictably found few receptive ears in the overseas Uygur community.

The Chinese government's claim that everyone in Xinjiang's modern-day concentration camps has 'graduated' is a ludicrous attempt to ease or deflect international pressureUS Senator Marco Rubio

After Zakir claimed on Monday that all "trainees" of the "vocational training centres" had been released, members of the Uygur diaspora began flooding social media to question why, if their relatives were indeed living in freedom, they were unable to contact them.

Using the hashtag #stillnoinfo, dozens of Uygurs living around the world took to Twitter to press the Chinese government - which is currently expanding its presence on the social media platform - on the whereabouts of their loved ones, in some cases even uploading unredacted photos of their relatives' identification cards.

Offline, meanwhile, members of the Uygur community in the US have stepped up lobbying efforts to drum up support for the UIGHUR Act among uncommitted senators.

One of those activists is 22-year-old Arfat Erkin, who took two days' leave from his job in southern Virginia to travel to Washington this week and join dozens of other members of the Uygur diaspora knocking on senators' doors.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greeting Arfat Erkin in Washington on March 27. Photo: US Secretary of State's office via Twitter

"For the last two years of our lives, literally every day we have been hearing tragic stories without seeing any hope, without seeing any hand reaching out to us," said Erkin, who came to the US on a student visa in 2015.

"But with this bill, it gives us a little bit of hope, even though it doesn't necessarily solve any practical problems," said Erkin, who views the legislation as a largely symbolic expression of US opposition to Beijing's policies in Xinjiang.

Based on accounts from family friends in Xinjiang, Erkin believes his mother was sent to an internment camp in 2017 and released earlier this year, although he still has not been able to make direct contact with her.

He also recently learned that his father, a former television journalist, is serving a nearly 20-year prison sentence for "harbouring criminal(s) and inciting national enmity or discrimination". News of the sentence was relayed to Erkin by the United Nations working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances in correspondence viewed by the South China Morning Post.

Compared with governments in other countries, the US administration was "doing a lot" on the Xinjiang issue, said Erkin. "But compared to the responsibility as the largest or most powerful nation in the world, (among) the countries that say 'never again', there is still a lot to be done."

For those counting on congressional action to spur the administration into doing more on the Xinjiang issue, the matter is an urgent one, especially given the work that remains in the Senate to get the bill ready for a vote.

A senior Republican Senate aide said the current hold-up was the result of amendments introduced to the bill by the House - such as the section on export controls - that required "extra examination" by the upper chamber's banking committee, rather than a matter of vote scheduling, which is determined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Supporters of the bill - both in and outside of Congress - want it passed and sent to US President Donald Trump's desk before the lawmakers' winter break, which is scheduled to begin on December 20 (or sooner if Congress approves next year's budget before then).

Pending legislation can carry over from year to year within the two-year congressional session, but some are concerned that several high profile events on the 2020 calendar could hamper its chances of speedy passage: the looming Senate impeachment trial, debate over the new US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement, the presidential campaign and dozens of Senate races.

"The Senate will not do anything for weeks other than the impeachment trial," said Nury Turkel, a lawyer and board chairman of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project (UHRP).

A third of the Senate's 100 seats will be up for election next year, meaning a significant number of lawmakers will be devoting time and resources to their campaigns.

Despite such distractions, those counting on Congress to act continue to draw encouragement from the broad and bipartisan support the bill has commanded, with the House passing the legislation by an overwhelming vote of 407 to 1.

"Anyone who's watching the impeachment hearings in the House could appreciate that there's not much members of Congress could agree on these days," said Turkel.

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