The Chinese official overseeing a sweeping security crackdown in China’s far west Xinjiang region should be targeted in potential sanctions, a US congressional commission has heard.
Since hardline official Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to govern China’s Muslim region in August 2016, he has overseen the construction of a network of extrajudicial internment camps. He has also stepped up surveillance of residents by using advanced technology as well as increasing police presence, and passed severe regulations to curtail religious and cultural expression.
According to estimates by rights groups and researchers, at least tens of thousands – or possibly a million members of ethnic minorities – many of them ethnic Uyghurs, are currently being held in “re-education” camps in the region.
At a hearing on the situation in Xinjiang by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) chaired by Senator Marco Rubio on Thursday, senior editor of ChinaFile and former Research Analyst at the Department of State Jessica Batke testified in a personal capacity. She said Chen should be included in any package of sanctions imposed by the US.
“Sanctioning a sitting Politburo member, one of the top 25 leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, would clearly convey the United States Government’s unequivocal condemnation of the camps,” she said.
Chen Quanguo’s influence on the region’s policy is “unusually clear,” and his tenure coincides with a large-scale use of the camps, the building of thousands of police stations, increases in security hiring and spending and a large increase in arrests, she said.
NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) found in a report released this week that one in five arrests in China last year took place in the Xinjiang region, despite the region containing only 1.5 per cent of the country’s population. Researchers compiled the report based on data from the Chinese government.
Batke said Chen’s actions in Xinjiang echoed his policies in Tibet, but clearly fit into a wider policy trend of “increased securitisation, criminalisation of ethnic and religious identity, and the reframing by the CCP of nonconforming behaviour as ‘extremism.'”
US lawmakers raised the possibility of using Magnitsky Act sanctions against Chinese officials this month. The Washington Post previously reported that Chen Quanguo would be the first to be targeted in a proposal from Sam Brownback, the US Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom.
Batke also raised the issue of what terminology should be used to describe the camps in Xinjiang. The centres are often called “counter-extremism training centres” and “education and transformation training centres” by state media, and “re-education camps” outside of China. Batke argued the terms were euphemistic language and did not clearly define what was happening in them.
“Though we do not know what is happening in each of these facilities, in at least some of these facilities, detainees are subject to waterboarding, being kept in isolation without food and water, and being prevented from sleeping. They are interrogated about their religious practices and about having made trips abroad. They are forced to apologise for the clothes they wore or for praying in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.
“I believe that if we to treat what is happening in Xinjiang with the seriousness and alarm that it merits, we first need to accurately label what it is we are witnessing,” she said.
“I think the US government and the international community in general need to think very hard about what’s happening in these camps and what we should call them and whether they are an early warning sign of something much worse to come.”
China has denied the existence of the camps, and officials say security measures are aimed at preventing Islamic extremism and terrorism.