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Harris ’22 and Iqbal ’24: American response to Uyghur genocide

Since 2014, the Chinese government has executed a relentless campaign of mass detainment, high-tech surveillance and religious persecution against Uyghur and other primarily Muslim groups in Xinjiang Province (often referred to as “East Turkestan” by Uyghurs). The Chinese authorities call their actions the “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism.” But the reality suggests a different goal: the complete elimination of the Uyghur people. In response to this crisis, the United States government must match rhetorical condemnation with targeted and globally cooperative sanctions against the Chinese government and direct aid to Uyghur refugees. 

Anti-Uyghur persecution in China is coordinated and alarming. While religiosity is generally discouraged in China, Islam is especially criminalized in Xinjiang Province/East Turkestan. Religious pilgrimage and Arabic names are banned. Mosques, shrines and cemeteries have been desecrated. In recent years, between 1 million and 3 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in “re-education” camps, where detainees are forbidden to speak their native languages, indoctrinated in Chinese Communist Party ideology and frequently subjected to torture. Detainees have also been forced to eat pork. These camps feed a thriving forced-labor economy that produces textiles for domestic consumption and export — including to the United States. 

Outside the camps, Uyghurs are subjected to a dystopian surveillance regime. Facial recognition cameras, vehicle checkpoints and civilian monitors support a “predictive policing system” that can identify and detain Uyghurs regardless of whether they have already committed a crime. In an eerie echo of eugenicist sterilizations of minorities and people with disabilities in the United States during the early 20th century, Uyghur women have even been forced to have intrauterine devices implanted and undergo sterilization and abortions. Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist and refugee who left Xinjiang/East Turkestan in 2017, described the Chinese government’s intentions as nothing less than the complete elimination of Uyghur identity: “What they want is to force us to assimilate, to identify with the country, such that, in the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning.” 

An American response to this crisis has already begun with recognition and condemnation. In response to calls from diaspora Uyghur activist groups, both the Trump and Biden administrations have recognized this crisis as a genocide. Under the U.N. Genocide Convention, genocide includes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Internment and forced sterilizations fulfill the first two clauses. The criminalization of Uyghurs’ religious and cultural identity proves intent. 

While rhetorical condemnation is important, it is an insufficient response by itself. The American government must also impose direct targeted sanctions to emphasize the severity of its opposition and compel meaningful policy shifts. So far, American sanctions have only been applied against a handful of Chinese officials for Xinjiang/East Turkestan human rights abuses. These actions must be expanded and further institutionalized. 

Fortunately, recent legislation promises to do just that. The Uyghur Forced Labor Act, which was introduced on March 11, 2020, would preemptively ban all Xinjiang/East Turkestan imports until they are certified as free from forced labor. The bill would also require publicly traded American companies to disclose ties with firms complicit in Uyghur human rights abuses. Furthermore, it would authorize the President to apply targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for Uyghur forced labor trafficking. While the UFLPA initially passed the House by a margin of 406 to 3, it never received a vote in the Senate and now must pass both chambers. However, large corporations with suspected lucrative ties to Uyghur forced labor, including Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple, are lobbying to water the bill down. Passing the UFLPA is needed not only to impose costs on human rights abusers, but also to motivate multinational corporations to join the fight against Uyghur genocide. 

Of course, sanctions must remain focused. New American sanctions must avoid the mistakes of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, which proved the futility and danger of wide-reaching sanctions that implicitly seek regime change and disincentivize negotiation. American sanctions must combat Uyghyur genocide within a strong bilateral U.S.-China relationship — not use them as an excuse for unilateralism and militarization. 

While condemning and sanctioning human rights abuses, the American government should also aid victims of Uyghyur genocide. The Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act would allow Xinjiang/East Turkestan residents to apply directly for American refugee resettlement without United Nations referral. While the American immigration system is far from ideal and is in need of reform, dire circumstances demand swift action. Beijing is already exerting severe pressure on Turkey, home to the largest Uyghur diaspora community, to deport human rights activists to China, where they face certain internment. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have recently deported numerous Uyghur refugees. 

A truly impactful response to Uyghur genocide requires global cooperation.The Chinese government has demonstrated a relentless commitment to cultural erasure and reaps the benefits of many powerful allies willing to look the other way. However, if enacted as part of a global campaign, America’s full investment in condemnation, sanctions and refugee assistance might force Beijing to end its most repressive policies. This crisis provides a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to recommit to multilateral international human rights advocacy. Re-joining the UN Human Rights Commission and using it as a platform to hold Beijing (and itself) accountable is a good start. 

American opposition to Uyghur genocide comes with numerous political and ethical challenges. It must never justify discrimination against Chinese citizens or Chinese Americans, especially amid this dangerous time of increased anti-Asian American racism. The Chinese government is responsible for Uyghur genocide, not the Chinese people. Furthermore, the Uyghur genocide must not become a tool for American military and economic hawks looking to demonize China for domestic political gain. Nor should opposition to Uyghur genocide distract from America’s own human rights abuses, at home and abroad. Nevertheless, these valid concerns must not postpone American action. Continued commitment to vocal condemnation, targeted sanctions and direct aid to Uyghur refugees — ideally coordinated with international partners — provide an effective and responsible means to confronting one of our generation's most egregious humanitarian crises. It's time for America to step up.

Zachary Harris ’22 can be reached at Haadi Iqbal ’24 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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