China’s Ethnic Cleansing Met with US Inaction under Global Magnitsky Law

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By Renee Xia & Frances Eve

The US Administration is squandering an opportunity to hold the Chinese government accountable for its atrocities in the Xinjiang region under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Of grave concern is the lack of targeted sanctions created by this law against the type of atrocities committed by the Chinese state in that region, where one million or more ethnic Uyghurs are reportedly detained in vast internment camps.

The Administration’s inaction allows Chinese officials responsible for the extrajudicial mass detention, torture, and forced disappearances of Uyghurs to continue enjoying impunity. Victims’ families and human rights organizations have had high hopes for the Global Magnitsky Act to add pressure to halt the Chinese government’s rampant rights abuses. That hope dims as months have gone by without any sign of the anticipated sanctions. 

The Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2016, authorizes the US President to sanction, through visa bans or asset freezes, individuals responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations. After the Trump Administration unveiled the first batch of sanctions in December 2017 alongside an Executive Order broadening the criteria for designating sanctions, the process has effectively stalled. A trickle of sanctions on four countries has come out sinceJuly 2018, but the expected full list of 2018 sanctions has still not materialized more than five months after the specified date in the Act for announcement: Human Rights Day on December 10. 

Withholding sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang may be the Administration’s bargaining strategy in the current US-China trade war. Or the Administration may have other priorities than stopping ongoing human rights atrocities. 

Our limited experience in pushing for realizing the Act’s potential for seeking accountability taught us a sober lesson. In 2017, with other human rights groups, we advocated for Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the torture to death of activist Cao Shunli and other rights abuses. We had compiled overwhelming evidence to support designating for sanctions Tao Jing and Fu Zhenghua, who held powerful positions at the time as deputy head of the Beijing police force and Deputy Minister of Public Security, respectively, for their role in Cao Shunli’s death. 

The Administration avoided targeting these higher-ranking officials. Though one Chinese official was eventually named on the 2017 sanctions list, the official was, regrettably, a lower-level police officer named Gao Yan, who had by then been reassigned to a position at the Beijing police academy. This outcome sent a rather weak and muzzled message. Meanwhile, Fu Zhenghua has since been promoted to Minister of Justice for zealously carrying out President Xi Jinping’s ruthless persecution of human rights lawyers, activists, citizen journalists, labor organizers, and religious and ethnic minorities.  

Will the Administration announce the long-delayed full 2018 list and sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses? The burden is on the Administration to demonstrate its willingness to enforce an American law on human rights accountability.

Human rights organizationsUS lawmakers, and at least one Trump Administration official have advocated for the 2018 sanctions list to target the high-ranking Chinese official Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang, who has methodically implemented Xi Jinping’s policyof ethnic cleansing in the name of “counter-terrorism” and “de-extremism” since his appointment in 2016. Under Chen Quanguo, authorities have rounded up more than one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim minorities while destroying Uyghur cultural and religious identity. Detainees have disappeared into internment camps, many of whom are intellectuals, scholars, and academics, and many have been subjected to torture. There have been a number of reported deaths in the camps. 

Indications that the Administration has not availed itself of a readymade tool to seek some measure of accountability for human rights abuses is all the more perplexing considering Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have had harsh words about the abuses in Xinjiang. The US Mission to the United Nations in Geneva made the extraordinary move to host an event on “Protecting Fundamental Freedoms in Xinjiang” during the March session of the Human Rights Council, a body from which the US had relinquished its membership last year. 

While human rights groups welcome the two Uyghur-focused human rights bills now making their way through Congress, however, even if the bills eventually become law, they will not replace the urgently needed concrete and specific measures such as sanctions dictated by the global human rights accountability law. To halt the human rights atrocities in Xinjiang, the US government must pull out all the stops. 

Renee Xia is the Director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

Frances Eve is the Deputy Director of Research at CHRD

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