In Depth

US Congress condemns China over treatment of Uighurs

Second bill in two weeks criticising China’s human rights conduct passes the House almost unanimously

US President Donald Trump is under intense pressure in Washington to denounce Beijing’s human rights conduct for the second time in a fortnight - at a time when US-China trade talks are already strained.

A week after the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act came into effect, the US House of Representatives has passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act 407 to 1.

The Uighur bill

The bill demands the closure of Chinese “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, where more than a million of China’s Muslim-minority Uighurs are reportedly interned. The legislation imposes sanctions on individual Chinese officials connected to any abuses.

The Xianjing detention programme was “on a scale not seen since the Holocaust”, said Republican Congressman Christopher Smith, soon after signing the legislation. “This Congress wants to hold the Chinese government and Chinese companies accountable for crimes against humanity and the cruelty they inflicted.”

The bill will now be considered by the Senate and, if it passes, will require the president’s signature to become law. Its passage this week was “historic”, said Nury Turkel, chair of the Uighur Human Rights Project advocacy group in Washington.

“The scope and scale of the crisis in the Uighur region demands urgent action in Congress to send this bill to President Trump’s desk for his signature,” Turkel said.

The reaction from China

China maintains that the detention camps are well-meaning attempts to combat extremism - and therefore views the castigations from Washington as illegitimate interference in its internal affairs and violations of its sovereignty.

“Xinjiang is China’s Xinjiang,” said a statement from China’s National Ethnic Affairs Commission.

The US should “immediately correct its mistake, stop the above bill on Xinjiang from becoming law, and stop using Xinjiang as a way to interfere in China’s domestic affairs”, said the Foreign Ministry. The legislation “wantonly smears China’s efforts to eliminate and combat extremism”, the department said.

Hu Xijin, editor of China’s party-controlled Global Times, warned of tit-for-tat retaliation for any sanctions imposed on individual Chinese citizens.

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Will this affect the trade standoff?

With a new tariff rise on Chinese imports due to take effect in two weeks, Washington’s condemnation of Beijing comes at a fragile time for their bilateral relations, but also for the wider world economy.

As the planet’s two wealthiest nations become more antagonistic and detached, countries such as Germany whose economies boast significant export sectors are already feeling the pain. And uncertainty has shaken investor confidence globally.

With every step taken towards competition and away from integration, it becomes more likely that the global economy of the future is defined more by “epochal, systemic contest that Chinese officials fear will long outlive the Trump administration”, writes Frederick Kempe on CNBC.

The friction with China could also continue to undermine the US economy in the lead up to the 2020 US presidential election and, as such, the continued absence of a new trade deal holds considerable political risk for President Trump.

Nevertheless, up to this point the US Congress has considered what it perceives as China’s violations of democracy and human rights as injustices worth acting against. Trump has acted with Congress, his hand forced by the fact that both this week’s and last week’s legislation have overwhelmingly been supported by his party.

On Tuesday, Trump seemed to concede that an imminent breakthrough in trade talks was unlikely.

“I like the idea of waiting until after the election for the China deal, but they want to make a deal now and we will see whether or not the deal is going to be right,” Trump told reporters. The Dow Jones toppled 400 points following his comment - underscoring how integral the markets believe US-China economic goodwill is to the global economy.

However, it remains to be seen if the two administrations will let these largely symbolic laws interfere with their future trade relations. Bloomberg cites people familiar with ongoing staff-level trade talks between the two nations who, it says, believe that some kind of trade deal is still on the horizon despite the current spat.

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