By Shayan Shirkhodai
When people consider President Biden’s biggest challenges since attaining the presidency, they often cite concerns regarding the impeachment of former president Donald J. Trump, climate change, or solving the headache of polarization. Needless to say, this is a list of items that should not be ignored. However, upon further examination, it becomes clear that there is one critical item missing from the list: China.
But what does that mean exactly? Americans are used to hearing “China” being thrown around by various politicians and angry podcasters, especially through the framework of jobs, controversial laws, and state-sponsored corruption. Yet, Biden’s China challenge does not quite fit neatly into any of these categories. Instead, he must divert his attention to China’s north-western region, Xinjiang, where much of the Uyghur population is being contained in internment camps, which the Chinese Communist Party has taken the liberty of labeling “re-education centers”. Since 2017, over 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in camps, many of whom have also been separated from their families or (in the case of women) forcibly sterilized.
So what does all this have to do with President Biden? Importantly, the Trump administration, as one of their final acts, labeled the Chinese treatment of their Uyghur population as “genocide” (which the United Nations has defined as, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”). This leaves President Biden with two (slightly oversimplified) options: he can choose to double down — or not. From a political point of view, the first of these is not particularly attractive. For starters, if President Biden denounces the situation as genocide, the United States, under the Genocide Convention, will be legally obligated to intervene in an effort to help the Uyghurs (then again, as international relations scholars will be quick to point out, there is no oversight mechanism that ensures nations actually follow international law). Still, assuming the administration would respect international law, there are many question marks regarding intervention during the time of COVID-19; most obviously, how would the United States intervene without public health risks? Additionally, and unrelated, there are many domestic distractions — vaccine distribution, criminal justice reform, schools opening, etc. — that will likely keep the current administration distracted and hesitant to intervene elsewhere.
Americans love the strong rhetoric that accompanies the defense of human rights, but as our 1993 intervention in Somalia demonstrates, once things go a little south, no human rights violation is worth the lives of American troops. This was reinforced by the failure accompanying the Rwandan Genocide, perhaps the grossest instance of bystanding from the U.S. and international community.
This brings us to President Biden’s second option: do nothing. This may include making vague threats, but considering China’s history on contentious human rights issues — as well as the fact that 37 other countries have already defended China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” — this will not likely lead to change. As of today, President Biden looks to be choosing this path. He has criticized President Xi Jinping regarding human rights offenses, but is yet to put forth a concrete strategy addressing the Uyghurs. His Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, took a slightly more assertive approach, commenting that China’s actions “speak to an effort to commit genocide”. Though he has elicited this all-important term, since he (and the rest of the administration) have failed to definitively categorize the situation as genocide, there remains no legal obligation to do anything.
It will doubtlessly be interesting to observe what President Biden chooses to do in the coming months. From a humanitarian perspective, there is one clear answer, but due to the complicated state of American (and world) politics today, it would be surprising to see any politician rise up to the task (perhaps this is why the Trump administration — despite knowing about this situation for years — waited until the end of their term to classify it as genocide). Regardless, one thing remains certain: while the United States continues occupying itself with debates regarding the utility of masks, the truth behind climate science, and its own place in the international sphere, Uyghurs will continue struggling for their ethnic survival in Chinese internment camps.
For more background information on the Uyghur camps in Xinjiang, visit https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/uighurs/ or https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22278037.