President Biden Assures China Will Face “Repercussions” for Human Rights Abuses, But Seemingly Dismisses Uyghur Genocide as a Result of “Cultural Norms”

On Tuesday, 16 February, President Biden participated in a CNN Town Hall in which he addressed questions regarding coronavirus relief and vaccination rollout plans, the possibility of schools reopening, and the United States’ relationship with China. The latter topic heavily focused on China’s human rights abuses against Uyghur and Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as China’s imposition of a repressive national security legislation in Hong Kong. President Biden’s response was lacking at best and dismissive at worst:

“I point out to him [Chinese President Xi Jinping] no American president can be sustained as a president, if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea that I am not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in western mountains of China and Taiwan – trying to end the one China policy by making it forceful … [Xi] gets it.”

There are various interpretations of the above statement. Some news outlets, including the New York Post, have interpreted it as meaning that President Biden does not intend to make any condemnations of China’s repressive and genocidal policies. However, because President Biden didn’t finish his sentence completely, others have interpreted it as meaning that he believes “the idea” of not speaking out would in contravention of American values of human rights, and therefore he will, in fact, work to hold China accountable. Regardless of what President Biden meant to say in the above statement, however, his next words are what drew condemnation some Uyghur diaspora communities:

“Culturally there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow. Well, there will be repercussions for China and [Xi] knows that. What I’m doing is, making clear that we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude.”

What are these ‘culturally different norms’ that President Biden speaks of? They aren’t ‘norms’ at all, and they shouldn’t be dismissed and overlooked as ‘norms’, because in reality they are genocidal tactics and crimes against humanity:

  • Arbitrary and Prolonged Detention in Mass Internment Camps: Since 2017, China has engaged in a campaign to technologically monitor, predictively police, and arbitrarily detain Uyghur and Turkic Muslims for no crimes other than the manifestation of their spiritual beliefs. Deemed ‘religious extremists’, these innocent individuals can be imprisoned for normal actions such as owning a Qur’an, wearing religious headscarves, and attending worship at mosques. It is estimated that upwards of one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslims are currently imprisoned in Xinjiang’s internment camps.
  • Physical and Sexual Torture: Multiple Uyghur survivors have bravely told their stories of suffering and torture in Xinjiang’s detention centers, including Mihrigul Tursun who remembers being physically tortured with electric shock; Mamattursun Omer who was repeatedly whipped with a computer cable and forced into stress positions for hours on end; and Tursunay Ziawudun who was kicked in the stomach, raped, and had an electric baton pushed inside her vagina.
  • Forced Sterilization and Birth Prevention: in Xinjiang in 2019, authorities planned to subject 80% of women in Uyghur minority regions to forced IUD implants. In internment camps, Uyghur and Turkic female inmates were forced to ingest pills that would stop their menstruation cycles, or to undergo irreversible tubal ligation sterilization procedures. As recently as 2018, in Xinjiang there was a record high of nearly 250 sterilizations per 100,000 of the population, whereas at the same time the national average was less than 50 sterilizations per 100,000 of the population. Moreover, “natural population growth in Xinjiang has declined dramatically; growth rates fell by 84 percent in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018, and declined further in 2019.”
  • Conscripted and Coerced Labor: In Xinjiang, labor transfer programs have forcibly transferred some 80,000 Uyghur workers outside of the province and to various other locations in China to engage in coerced labor. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 identified 27 factories in China that are using Uyghur forced labor, many of which are part of the supply chains of some 82 famous global brands. At these factories and their living areas, Uyghur workers are threatened and intimidated, monitored 24/7, prevented from travel, prohibited from engaging in religious activity outside of work, and subjected to “abusive working conditions” and “political indoctrination.”

The above are not cultural norms, they are universally recognized human rights violations, genocidal acts, and crimes against humanity. In fact, in mid-January 2021, former United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself made the determination that “the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang” and that he believes that “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state.” Following the administration transition, new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed his predecessor’s genocide determination, stating “that would be my judgement as well. Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect reeducate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party – all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”

So now, President Biden’s dismissive classification of China’s genocidal acts as simply a product of ‘cultural norms’ feels like a slap in the face to some Uyghur and Turkic Muslim diaspora communities and family members of individuals detained in Xinjiang internment camps, who have worked tirelessly to expose China’s human rights violations and advocated for the release of their Uyghur relatives. While some Uyghur organizations are appreciative of President Biden’s assurance that China will face repercussions and stress that much more must be done to hold China accountable, others have been deeply offended by Biden’s statements and seek clarification for why he classified genocide as part of ‘cultural norms’:

“We understand that the new administration is in the process of reviewing its approach to China, and we note and appreciate remarks from you and other senior officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reflecting the gravity of Chinese government-inflicted human rights violations in Hong Kong and the Uyghur region/Xinjiang. We welcome senior officials’ statements that the US government will hold the Chinese government “accountable for its abuses of the international system,” and the suggestion that the US will impose consequences for serious violations. To demonstrate that the United States will meet this challenge, we urge that you and your administration take the following steps: make human rights a priority in China policy; play an active role in international bodies that promote human rights in China; provide strong and steadfast support to human rights defenders and civil society activists across China; maintain existing targeted sanctions; counter Chinese Communist Party propaganda”Uyghur Human Rights Project

“Many Uyghurs and other East Turkistanis in the diaspora are worried that President Biden sought to portray China as the victim and justify its genocide and other crimes against humanity when he stated that ‘culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.’ However, the ‘norms’ in China, as shown in a recent BBC News exposé, include systemic torture and rape occurring in Uyghur concentration camps. The East Turkistan Government in Exile, the democratically elected official body representing East Turkistan, what China calls ‘Xinjiang’ (the colony / new territory) and its people, condemns  in the strongest terms, President Biden’s recent statements which has been perceived by our diaspora community as an attempt to justify China’s ongoing genocide of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan by portraying China as a ‘victim.’ We urge President Biden to issue a statement clarifying his stance on China’s genocide and other crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan. If President Biden is truly faithful to his promises of upholding human rights and human dignity, then he should lead the U.S. and the international community to ACT immediately to end this ongoing genocide.”East Turkistan Government in Exile