How human rights got political
By Cao Wei  ·  2024-01-08  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 11, 2024
Passengers take a selfie aboard a train bound for Urumqi in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on April 29, 2022 (XINHUA)

Human rights, encompassing the right to life, liberty, security, work, education and many other things, represent a step forward in the progress of human development. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, declared during the French Revolution in 1789, the Bill of Rights ratified by the U.S. in 1791 and UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 mark pivotal moments of a process where the recognition and protection of human rights progressively deepen.

Regrettably, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Council have been reduced to an arena of international power struggles, where a select group of countries, perceiving themselves as human rights arbiters, point their accusatory fingers at others, even unabashedly provoking conflicts and confrontations. The interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations under the banner of "protecting human rights" has, in reality, created greater humanitarian crises.

Human rights as an excuse

In recent years, the U.S. has exhibited a pronounced preoccupation with the human rights situation in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The ill-intentioned "Uygur Human Rights Policy Act (UHRP) of 2020" and the "Uygur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) of 2021" introduced property-blocking and visa-blocking sanctions, targeting Chinese government officials, as well as government and corporate entities. The U.S. then hyped up narratives surrounding "reeducation camps," "forced labor" and "forced sterilization, or genocide," disseminating them globally.

In past years, collaborating with allies, Washington made accusations about human rights conditions in Xinjiang at the UN. U.S. Congress is presently examining the so-called "Uygur Policy Act of 2023," which claims to establish a "Special Coordinator for Uygur Issues" to "monitor human rights violations" in Xinjiang in the name of "protecting the distinct ethnic and cultural identity of the Uygurs." Moreover, it has been actively engaging members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Central Asian countries to join in its interference in Xinjiang affairs.

The U.S. has invested considerable human and financial resources in shaping political narratives regarding Xinjiang. However, one must question the sincerity of these politicians.

The rights to survival and development are an inherent and undeniable aspect of humanity. But the specter of extremism has cast its shadow over the region in recent years, with thousands of terrorist attacks causing both property losses and deaths and injuries, affecting people of all ethnicities. On April 23, 2013, terrorists killed three workers and attacked local government personnel and police coming to their rescue in Selibuya Town, Bachu County, in Xinjiang's Kashgar Prefecture. The horrific event resulted in 15 deaths and two individuals severely injured, with casualties of four ethnic groups including the Uygur. It is crucial to acknowledge that all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are victims of terrorism, and their common wish is to stand united against this menace.

Turning a blind eye to this bloody violence and the casualties it has caused, the U.S. remained reluctant to consider the perpetrators as terrorists before—appallingly—delisting the infamous Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization in 2020. This action unquestionably sent a misleading signal to terrorism.

Xinjiang used to have 35 impoverished counties and 3,666 impoverished villages, with over 3.06 million people living under the poverty line. A pivotal focus of the region's socio-economic development is making education and employment accessible. The government of Xinjiang offered a curriculum of standard spoken and written Chinese language, and vocational training to improve workers' skills and entrepreneurial ability. At the same time, local governments have managed to attract foreign investment to create jobs. These efforts, however, were misconstrued by certain U.S. politicians as "cultural genocide" and "forced labor." In response, Washington has adopted the UFLPA, which maliciously targets Xinjiang's cotton, tomatoes and silica-based products. It subsequently extended sanctions on companies within Xinjiang and those engaging in business with the region. The U.S. even threatened international enterprises including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Nike, coercing them to either withdraw from Xinjiang or sever ties with companies operating in the region.

The enacting of the UFLPA has given rise to two grave consequences. One is that it has overshadowed the prospects of achieving full employment for the Uygur population, because Chinese and international companies employing Uygurs are labeled as potential practitioners of "forced labor." As of November 8, 2023, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection had stopped 6,045 shipments valued at over $2.1 billion subject to the UFLPA. The other consequence is that domestic and international companies related to Xinjiang face long-arm jurisdiction wielded by Washington. They are trapped in a dilemma where they found themselves either catering to the U.S. demands for sanctions on Xinjiang, thereby risking losing Chinese consumers, or defying Washington at the expense of their American market. This threatens to disturb the functioning of global industrial and supply chains, resulting in a notable surge in the logistical costs of global trade.

Underlying reasons

The U.S. uses "human rights protection" as an excuse but in fact damages the human rights of the people in Xinjiang, particularly those of Uygurs. The rights to survival and development among all ethnic groups in Xinjiang have not been improved as a result of U.S. action, but have instead suffered severe setbacks.

So then, why does the U.S. persist in devising and implementing new measures concerning Xinjiang? It is clear that human rights have been politically manipulated and weaponized, evolving into a strategic tool wielded by Washington to impede China's rise. The sincerity of American politicians' concern for the actual human rights situation in Xinjiang has been brought into question, as the majority of lawmakers and government officials have not personally visited the region. Rather than being grounded in firsthand experiences, legislative efforts and policymaking are often shaped by a fantastical perception of Xinjiang. Lawrence Wilkerson, Chief of Staff to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, has admitted that the so-called Xinjiang issue was nothing but a U.S. strategic plot to destabilize and contain China from within.

The criticism by the U.S. against China on human rights issues is driven by not only geopolitical concerns but also deep-rooted racism, a hierarchical perspective on civilizations and a missionary fervor to reshape the world in its foreign policy as manifested in discrimination and persecution suffered by non-white communities within the nation. Regrettably, in the context of political correctness, everyone understands this but seldom openly acknowledges it due to "political correctness."

After the mid-20th century, during the Cold War, the U.S. maintained a protracted hostile stance toward China arising out of its "Red Scare." Some U.S. politicians have been spreading the view that Chinese people are living under "Communist oppression," with ethnic minorities suffering even more, and that they are waiting the U.S. to "liberate" them.

After the Cold War, the U.S. attempted to influence China through a policy of containment and engagement. However, to the disappointment of the U.S., China neither collapsed as the Soviet Union did, nor followed the path of development the U.S. had envisioned.

Despite having physically stepped into the 21st century, certain factions in Washington seem stuck in the ideological quagmire of the 20th century, indulging in its triumph over the Soviet Union. They now attempt to dust off and reuse Cold War-era methods in approaching China—instigating ideological conflicts and confrontations, pursuing "decoupling" and "de-risking" from China, and intending to provoke tensions between the Chinese Government and its people, and among the diverse ethnic groups within China.

China and the U.S. have different histories, cultures, social systems and paths of development. This is a fact. However, they can navigate differences and find the right way to coexist as long as both sides commit to the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. China has no intention of surpassing or replacing the U.S.; it will not become a second U.S. Washington should also forgo its wishful thinking to remold China in its own image.

The author is an associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations under Lanzhou University

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to liwenhan@cicgamericas.com

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