• Ideas
  • world affairs

The U.S. Must Use the New Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act to Sanction Chinese Officials for Religious Persecution

5 minute read
Turkel is co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and a Commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Commission.

After years of hard work, Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on May 28 by an overwhelming majority.

This is the first law in history dedicated to promoting the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims in China, who have faced systematic persecution as a result of their religious beliefs. It will ensure U.S. policy toward China takes into account the Chinese government’s violations of religious freedom.

The new law also directs the U.S. government to impose financial sanctions and visa bans against Chinese government officials responsible for the persecution of Muslims. It requires an FBI report to Congress on efforts to protect Uyghurs from Chinese government intimidation and harassment on American soil. Additionally, it would require the Administration to report on human rights abuses in the Uyghur region, including formal estimates of the number of individuals detained in concentration camps.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of complicit officials in China. I urge President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on them, including Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. In addition to overseeing the concentration camps in Xinjiang—the Chinese region that is home to most Uyghurs and known to us as East Turkistan—Chen is also responsible for creating a surveillance state in Tibet that monitors Buddhist monasteries. The U.S. government should also target former Political and Legal Affairs Commission Chief Zhu Hailun, the architect of China’s repressive policies against Uyghurs.

In addition, I urge Congress to swiftly pass a second bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would direct the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to presume that any goods produced in the Uyghur region are the product of forced labor. The CBP has already blocked imports from individual Chinese companies due to concerns about forced labor. This bill would help ensure that no American consumer makes purchases that would violate their sense of justice.

I understand the hesitancy of some U.S. officials to use this authority and further aggravate the already complicated U.S.-China relationship. However, now is the time for action; we must demonstrate that there will be serious consequences for the Communist Party’s alleged crimes against humanity.

While no country has a perfect record on human rights, nothing illustrates the differences between China and the United States better than how they treat their Muslim populations. In China, the Communist Party treating Islam like a mental illness and has interned millions of Muslims who display their faith visibly, such as by growing beards or wearing veils. In the United States, a Muslim Uyghur-American was appointed to the National Security Council in 2019. In Urumqi, the regional capital, authorities have waged campaigns against halal dietary restrictions. In Washington, D.C., Uyghurs have opened several restaurants.

My own story—and how I came to advocate for my fellow Uyghurs, is only possible in America. I was born in a Chinese reeducation camp in 1970, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. While there are many things I love about my ancestral homeland, East Turkistan, China provides few opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities like me. In 1995, I came to the United States for graduate school and was fortunate to receive political asylum. I later pursued my dream of becoming a lawyer.

Though I am living the American Dream, many of my friends and family—along with millions of other religious and ethnic minorities—are living in a Chinese dystopia. Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1.8 million of my fellow Uyghurs, along with Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in concentration camps. Starting in 2019, Chinese officials have forced thousands of Uyghur and other Muslim detainees to work in factories. There have been credible reports that some American companies operating in China, including Apple and Nike, source from suppliers using Uyghur forced labor. (Both companies have said they are committed to ensuring their suppliers do not use forced labor.)

I have used my liberty living in America to promote the cause of millions of Uyghurs. In 2003, I co-founded the Uyghur Human Rights Project and also served as president of the Uyghur American Association. On May 22, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed me to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I will advise the U.S. government on the promotion and protection of religious freedom abroad. That same week, the U.S. Congress took a major step toward that goal.

The passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act comes after years of effort. Just a few years ago, few Americans had heard about the plight of the Uyghur people. Now, senior U.S. government officials regularly champion our cause. Secretary Pompeo has raised the Uyghur issue publicly more than two dozen times since last fall including to call China’s treatment of the Uyghur as the “stain on the century.

Ensuring that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and all Chinese citizens can worship as they choose will require even more years of hard work. Yet, the first time in years, I have some reason for optimism.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.