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British and American Lawmakers Weigh Actions on Uyghur ‘Genocide’

The British Parliament has declared Beijing’s crackdown on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China as genocide.

Following a debate Thursday, the House of Commons passed unopposed a non-binding resolution condemning “mass human rights abuses and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where authorities have dispatched a million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities to detention camps intended to break down their cultural identities and instill loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“Today’s vote must mark a turning point. No one can still deny the scale of the abuses taking place in the Xinjiang region,” Member of Parliament Yasmin Qureshi, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China U.K., said. “That this government is pursuing deeper trade ties with China while these abuses continue is unthinkable.”

Nusrat Ghani, who introduced the motion, told lawmakers that “while we must never misuse the term genocide, we must not fail to use it when it’s warranted.”

“I know colleagues are reluctant to use the word genocide,” Ghani, one of five MPs sanctioned by Beijing for criticizing its treatment of Uyghurs, said. “For many, the word will forever be associated with the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and I agree with colleagues that we should never diminish the unique meaning or power of this term by applying it incorrectly. But there is a misunderstanding that genocide is just one act—mass killing. That is false.”

It’s a sentiment that’s far from unanimous across the United Kingdom’s halls of power. Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s government, which announced joint sanctions with the United States, Canada and the European Union on several Chinese officials last month, has yet to officially join its U.S., Canadian and Dutch counterparts in condemning Beijing’s actions in the strongest possible terms. Speaking to Parliament, Nigel Adams, Britain’s minister for Asia, reiterated Johnson‘s longstanding stance that any formal profession of genocide would have to be decided upon by “competent” courts.

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But though the non-binding resolution doesn’t force the United Kingdom to act, it’s another indication of the escalating international backlash against the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang.

Beijing has consistently denied allegations of atrocities occurring in the region, instead accusing its critics of trying to “undermine Xinjiang’s stability and security and curb China’s development,” as Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told Reuters this week. It has also responded belligerently to such charges, levying tit-for-tat sanctions on politicians and diplomats and whipping up boycotts against brands when they veer from the party line.

Rep. Gregory Meeks
Rep. Gregory Meeks, (D-N.Y.), walks down the House steps after the last vote of the week in the Capitol on Friday, April 16, 2021. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Indeed, few matters are “more difficult to address” than the goings-on in Xinjiang, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a markup session to consider several pending resolutions, including H.R. 1155, better known as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Wednesday.

“Despite attempts to cover up the atrocities by Chinese authorities, it has become clear that the ongoing abuses committed against the Uyghurs and the people in Xinjiang amount to genocide as defined by the Geneva Convention,” Meeks said. “The reports I have read and heard from survivors are truly harrowing.”

H.R. 1155, which has strong bipartisan support, gives the Foreign Affairs Committee’s response to the situation “more bite,” Meeks said, by prohibiting broad categories of goods from Xinjiang, imposing sanctions on officials responsible for human-rights violations and calling for a diplomatic strategy to address forced labor in the region.

“I do believe it is the duty of this committee to account for commercial, business, economic, environmental and strategic considerations with each bill we pass,” Meeks said. “But ultimately, we will not compromise on our core values or cast asunder our most cherished principles. The United States and the People’s House have a duty to lead on these difficult issues. And we will not turn our backs on this solemn responsibility.”

Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who worked with Meeks to introduce a resolution last week condemning Beijing’s human rights violations as genocide, said the Uyghur crisis is far from a “nuanced issue.”

“The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide clearly states that genocide is acting with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, an ethnic, racial or religious group,” McCaul said, citing multiple credible reports. “These innocent people are being subjected to forced labor for sterilization and abortions, torture, family separation, sexual abuse, and family members have reported disappearances and even deaths. CCP officials have portrayed Uyghurs as ‘malignant tumors.’ They’ve been compared to a ‘communicable plague.’”

McCaul’s bill also calls on President Biden to refer the abuses to the United Nations for investigation under the Genocide Convention, seek multilateral sanctions against China at the UN Security Council and take “all possible actions to bring the genocide to an end.”

“It’s time the United States Congress steps up and speaks out against the genocide and crimes against humanity being committed by the CCP,” he said. “We have a moral obligation today and tomorrow to recognize these crimes for what they really are: genocide. The Chinese Communist Party is watching closely what we are doing here today. And in fact, the world is watching. I urge everyone to support this important resolution, so we can send a strong bipartisan message that the United States stands against genocide anywhere, everywhere.”

H.R. 1155, an updated rendering of legislation that passed in the House last September by a margin of 406 to 3, is similar to a Senate version that was reintroduced last month after it stalled last season. It creates a so-called “rebuttable presumption” that any goods made in Xinjiang are the product of forced labor and prohibited from entering the United States unless clear and convincing evidence shows otherwise.

“So many goods that have been made in factories with forced labor are showing up in our stores and on our shelves,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), encouraging the passage of the bill. “Chinese authorities have had the audacity to deny the very existence of mass internment camps and portray them as vocational training centers. What a lie. What a despicable lie.”

By ushering the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law, said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who bemoaned the failure of the Senate to pass the legislation on its end, the United States can “lead the way toward ensuring respect for the fundamental rights and dignity of the Uyghur people.”

“Now we have another opportunity and those of us serving in both chambers must act with the moral urgency that this issue demands by banning all imports from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” said Wild, whose constituents include a Uyghur woman whose mother is being detained in China. “This is a step our nation can take right now to end the genocide.”

The ‘China Challenge’

Lawmakers are planning other retaliatory measures against Beijing. On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee threw its support behind the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 by a vote of 21 to 1, sending the bill for consideration by the full Senate. The legislation, which aims to check Beijing’s “predatory” global ambitions, recommends a total of $655 million in Foreign Military Financing funding for the Indo-Pacific region for fiscal years 2022 through 2026, and a total of $450 million for the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative and related programs for the same period.

“There has been no shortage of discussion in recent years about the need to reimagine our nation’s competitive posture towards China. There has, however, been a lack of results—until today,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “With this overwhelming bipartisan vote, the Strategic Competition Act becomes the first of what we hope will be a cascade of legislative activity for our nation to finally meet the China challenge across every dimension of power, political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military and even cultural.”

Another group of Senate and House of Representatives lawmakers introduced the Endless Frontier Act, which calls for $100 billion in government spending over five years on basic and advanced technology research in a bid to counteract increasing competitive heat from China. The bill, sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and others, would also authorize another $10 billion for 10 “regional hubs” for technology innovation.

“There is a bipartisan consensus that the United States must invest in the technologies of the future to out-compete China,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Whichever nation develops new technologies first—be they democratic or authoritarian—will set the terms for their use. The stakes for personal privacy and personal liberties, as well as for national security, economic security, and minority rights around the globe, are simply enormous.”