Ignoring human-rights abuses is no longer an option.
Reports of the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses of Uyghur minorities has — along with its oppression of Hong Kong, use of mass surveillance, and dubious handling of the coronavirus pandemic — prompted a belated moral wake-up call among Western leaders. Yesterday, the U.S. State Department condemned the latest “atrocities,” reported on by the BBC, as evidence emerged that women in China’s detention camps are being systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured.
The report comes after the AP revelation last June that Uyghur women were enduring forced abortions and sterilizations. As with the earlier report, the survivor’s testimony regarding the rape allegations is corroborated and convincing. The BBC interviewed several former detainees as well as a female guard. The women’s travel documents, immigration records, and satellite imagery corroborate the timeline, while descriptions of life in the camp corresponded with other survivors’ accounts. From the report:
Asked if there was a system of organised rape, [the female former guard] said: “Yes, rape.”
“They forced me to go into that room,” she said. “They forced me to take off those women’s clothes and to restrain their hands and leave the room.”
Some of the women who were taken away from the cells at night were never returned, Ziawudun said. Those who were brought back were threatened against telling others in the cell what had happened to them.
“You can’t tell anyone what happened, you can only lie down quietly,” she said. “It is designed to destroy everyone’s spirit.”
In response, a spokesperson for the U.S. state department said that “these atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences.” China’s foreign ministry denied the allegations outright, calling the BBC’s investigation a “false report.”
Of course, this is not the first time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to evade accountability for human-rights violations. The CCP describes the camps where upwards of 2 million Muslims and minorities have been interned and abused as “vocational training centers.” When prisoners’ heads are shaven, their families torn apart, when they are forced to renounce their religion, abort their children, and are raped and tortured, the rest of the world is supposed to believe that this is a necessary “de-radicalization” program.
As George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” euphemistic “political language” is specifically “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” As are, of course, blatant lies. Even when presented on British television with drone footage showing Uyghurs being blindfolded and led off like cattle, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. continued to deny any knowledge of human-rights violations.
Nevertheless, thanks to the brave testimony of survivors and the tenacity of reporters, the moral pressure on politicians to sanction the perpetrators of these human-rights abuses is mounting.
In the U.K., there was a powerful call to action last month when a number of Jewish leaders used Holocaust Memorial Day to highlight the persecution of the Uyghurs. Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to complain that while many Jews are “extremely hesitant to consider comparisons with the Holocaust,” China’s abuse of the Uyghurs is nevertheless “shaping up to be the most serious outrage of our time.”
There has been a clear shift in British policy toward China in the past year. The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has described the treatment of the Uyghurs as “gross and egregious human rights abuses.” And Britain has notably toughened up sanctions in the past year, such as instating the Huawei ban, and has been clamping down on CCP propaganda being broadcast under journalistic pretenses in the U.K.
The United States seems to be moving in a similar direction. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, currently pending the Senate’s approval, would prevent American corporations from financial involvement with forced labor. According to polling and analysis by Pew Research, “after originally resisting” sanctions on Chinese companies and officials due to their treatment of the Uyghurs “the American public appears poised to support a tough stance,” with 73 percent support for promoting human rights in China “even if it harms bilateral economic relations.”
Western leaders tasked with answering the diplomatic question of how to deal with China increasingly face an unenviable challenge. But they are right to recognize that ignoring human-rights abuses is no longer an option.