The appalling persecution of the Muslim Uyghur minority in northwestern China by the Communist Party (CCP) regime in Beijing is a matter of growing concern for Jewish communities around the world. Last week, the former British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, spoke for many Jews when he took to Twitter to denounce the genocidal campaign that the CCP is waging in the Xinjiang region.
The Uyghurs have been oppressed by the CCP for decades, but the party’s campaign has escalated sharply in recent years. Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, alongside members of smaller Turkic minorities in the same region, have been incarcerated in prison camps that the regime describes in totalitarian fashion as “re-education centers.” Human-rights activists report a constant stream of the most basic crimes against humanity: the use and abuse of forced labor, sterilization programs targeting Uyghur women, the destruction and confiscation of the Koran and other Muslim religious texts, compelling Muslims to violate the prescriptions of their faith by eating pork and drinking alcohol.
All this, wrote Sacks, amounts to “a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself.”
But there was a more personal aspect to Sacks’s intervention. Last weekend, a grainy video showing shackled and blindfolded Uyghur prisoners being herded onto trains went viral, aided by the abject failure of the Chinese ambassadors in both Washington, D.C., and London to credibly explain these images when confronted with them on live TV. “As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven-headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly worrying,” wrote Sacks.
It is worrying not just because of what we know happens to the prisoners once they reach their destination. Of equal concern is the fact that—as Jews know all too well, and as we have learned over and again from subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Syria and other countries—the world simply watches as these atrocities proceed. (A cynic might add that the main contribution Western governments make to genocide awareness is by constructing memorials to the victims after they are dead.)
The question remains, however, as to what can be done to counter these atrocities. China must be “challenged by the global community in the strongest possible terms,” argued Sacks, but there is little agreement internationally about what “possible” might involve. In Xinjiang, as well as in Tibet and Hong Kong, the Western democracies face a superpower with an economic and military weight that dwarfs those nations, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, where the presence of brutal paramilitaries on the ground was enough to stop Western countries dispatching troops to rescue the civilians at their mercy. If we couldn’t stop the killing in those countries 25 years ago, how can we do so in China now?
Moreover, the international environment these days hardly favors Western interventionism. Twenty years ago, there was a great deal of excitement about a concept known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which essentially means that outside powers have a duty to prevent governments from exterminating their own people, irrespective of the rules of national sovereignty. Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the aversion of both the Obama and Trump administrations to what are called “foreign wars,” that idea has been left with few influential backers. “Keep our military out of it,” has been the rule of thumb in American foreign policy for the last 12 years.
What America thinks and does matters, of course, because this country is also a superpower. True, it is a bruised one these days, and the Chinese, Iranian, Russian, Venezuelan and sundry other authoritarian regimes have been sure to exploit the propaganda gift that renewed racial tensions in the United States have provided. America is also governed by a man who doesn’t believe that the character of another country’s rulers should be a factor in making American policy. Democracy or dictatorship, it doesn’t make a difference; hence, President Donald Trump’s hammering of the regimes in Iran and Venezuela, and his simultaneous indulging of Turkey and North Korea.
But for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there are clear moral and ideological aspects to the U.S. relationship with China that cannot be ignored. In a speech last week at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Pompeo addressed the present outcome of the outreach to China begun by President Richard Nixon half-a-century ago.
Pompeo’s words may well herald a complete transformation of that relationship. “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which [CCP General-Secretary] Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” he told his audience.
Despite listing the misdeeds of the CCP—from its suppression of vital information about COVID-19 to its operation of concentration camps—Pompeo did not call for assembling the sort of international coalition that removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003. The specific phrase he used, taken from an article on China written by Nixon, was to “induce change” in the behavior of the country’s rulers.
“We can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, just like any other,” Pompeo asserted by way of explanation. He rightly highlighted the sour taste left by three decades of U.S. openness to Chinese corporations and visiting Chinese students resulting in espionage and intellectual property theft, resulting in the recent closure of the regime’s consulate in Houston.
Whether a combination of rigorous sanctions and support for pro-democracy forces will secure a change in Beijing’s behavior is not something anyone would want to predict, but it is right to remain skeptical. Pompeo’s shift on China won’t stop the atrocities in Xinjiang this week or next, but it does send an unmistakable message to China’s rulers that American leaders have finally wised up. Let us hope in the event of a change of administration in the United States this November that Pompeo’s China policy doesn’t become a victim in the process.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.