A facility believed to be a reeducation camp, where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in China’s western Xinjiang region. (Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images)
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Opinion: The U.S. should do more to stop China’s reeducation camps

Forced labor. Religious repression. Indoctrination.

This is not just a description of Nazi Germany during World War II; quite unbelievably, it describes what is happening in China today. While Hong Kong may have the world’s attention, human rights violations in the eastern part of China should equally raise the alarm bell.

Since 2014, China has developed a system of over 1,000 “reeducation” camps in the province of Xinjiang aimed at detaining minority Muslim ethnic groups, according to Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

China contends that these measures are necessary to fight terrorism after extremist attacks occurred in Xinjiang cities. However, China hides behind this statement to conceal the harsh reality: these camps are used by the government to brainwash minorities to become blindly loyal to the Communist Party and to forsake their ethnic and religious traditions like Islam.

U.S. officials estimate that one to three million inmates are being held in captivity, often without being charged with a crime, reports the Washington Free Beacon. Salih Hudayar, founder of a Xinjiang human rights group, told the Free Beacon “we fear that China is preparing for a 21st century Holocaust.”

These unconscionable acts cannot go unchecked.

In July, 22 countries sent a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the mass detentions. Although the United States withdrew from the Human Rights Council in 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked in May to a reporter that the camps were “reminiscent of the 1930s.” Then, just a few months ago, Pompeo went even further and said that China is “trying to erase minority cultures and religions.”

Not all countries seem to have an issue with the internment camps, though. The day after the 22 countries’ rebuke, 37 more countries released their own statement in support of China. Among the 37 are Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea — none of which have been known as champions for human rights. This should be a sign to the United States that something is amiss.

Criticizing China’s actions alone is not enough. The United States, which at first called the Nazis’ Final Solution a “war rumor,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, must not make the same mistake again. The United States cannot stand idly by and let its economic relationship with Beijing cloud its judgment.

Currently, millions of Uighur Turks, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks are held in internment camps and forced to work in crowded and unsafe factories. They are denied medical treatment and deaths in overpopulated cells are common.

In addition, they have to learn propaganda songs praising Chinese President Xi Jinping and are pressured to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are forbidden in Islam. Many are required to confess “offenses” such as praying at a mosque or traveling abroad.

Iman, a young Uighur man studying in the United States, shared a particularly horrendous story with Foreign Policy Magazine. On a visit home to China, he was taken into police custody and questioned about his time in America. Soon thereafter, Iman was transported to a local jail and shackled for nine days, after which he was subjected to multiple rounds of interrogation.

When finally taken to a camp, Iman was forced to strip to his underwear and shave his head. He marched for several hours a day and repeatedly chanted, “Train hard, study diligently.” All the prisoners watched state-sponsored films warning against the dangers of “illegal religious activity,” such as studying the Quran.

After 17 days of isolation — without ever being charged with a crime — Iman was released. A guard warned him, “Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.”

The United States-China relationship is a complex yet prosperous one. In the midst of a trade war, both countries are still exporting billions-worth of goods to each other. But, if the United States continues to prioritize economic interests over fighting injustice and intolerance, it will have failed. Harder lines must be drawn; something must be done.

A bill introduced to Congress will have strong implications for China. Named the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, its official purpose is to “direct United States resources to address violations of universally recognized human rights, including the mass internment of over 1,000,000 Uighurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities.” This law would allow the Secretary of State to implement tools under the International Religious Freedom Act that “address particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Congress has recently passed this vital piece of legislation. On Sept. 11, 2019, the Senate passed the bipartisan bill and sent it to the House, where it was passed on December 3, 2019. It will now be sent to the President for signature. Signing the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 into law would be a significant step by the United States to address the Xinjiang crisis.

The United States has been in this situation before. It watched from afar during the early stages of the Holocaust and built internment camps of its own in California that incarcerated over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Will Xinjiang be yet another example of the United States falling short? Will history repeat itself?

The United States does not have to make another mistake. It has a choice. The President must sign the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 so that the U.S. can take a stand for the millions of Uighurs and other minorities who cannot take a stand for themselves.

Or, the United States can stand by and do nothing. Actions speak louder than words. This time, the United States needs to be on the right side of history.