Kozak made the comments on Wednesday as the State Department presented its annual report on human rights around the world, an event at which his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declared that China was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”
That’s a tough call in today’s world. But China’s brutal campaign to strip Uighur and other Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang region of their culture, religion and identity through a network of secretive re-education camps must rank among the more outrageous continuing violations in the world. What makes it all the more galling is the Beijing government’s feigned umbrage whenever the camps are mentioned, and its absurd efforts to depict them as China’s contribution to the war on terrorism.
After initially denying the existence of the camps, China in October began a campaign to portray them as “campuses,” “vocational training centers” and “boarding schools” intended to bring Uighurs into the modern era.
China has made direct news reporting from Xinjiang all but impossible, giving access only to carefully monitored official tours. On one, Reuters reported that camp inmates praised their new life and sang, in English, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”
Reports from survivors, Uighur dissidents, the Uighur diaspora, satellite imagery and other sources depict something far more akin to the gulag than a happy boarding school, with at least 120,000 and possibly more than 1 million Uighurs, out of a population of more than 10 million Muslims in Xinjiang, forced to undergo Cultural Revolution-style coercion to adopt state-sanctioned norms of political thought and behavior.
Writing in The New York Times, Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow on Islam at the Cato Institute, described camps at which “people are forced to listen to ideological lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write ‘self-criticism’ essays.” He said survivors told of sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and torture.
Conquered and incorporated into China in the 18th century, Xinjiang has long been a thorn in China’s side. The Chinese government attributes scores of violent events, including bombings and assassinations, to Uighur separatists. Violent riots in July 2009 in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, escalated into attacks on Han Chinese people and a vicious crackdown and several death sentences.
But trying to extinguish national identity through what amounts to mass brainwashing is an atrocity that smacks of some of the worst experiments of our time — including China’s own Cultural Revolution — with some thoroughly modern twists. A key part of China’s campaign to control the Uighurs has been collecting DNA from members of the minority under the guise of a free health check.
Sadly, Muslim nations have been reticent about supporting the Uighurs, possibly because of the economic clout China wields among them and the solidarity some of these states have with an anti-Western authoritarian regime. In February, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted on Chinese television after a meeting with President Xi Jinping as saying, “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security.”
That should not dissuade other governments and organizations from continuing to focus attention on the camps, as the State Department has. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, would require the State Department and intelligence agencies to report on what the Chinese government is doing in Xinjiang. The bill should be promptly passed. The United States should also support the request of 15 Western ambassadors to Beijing — America’s was not one of them — to meet with the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang.
What is happening in Xinjiang must not be ignored.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.