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Redesignate China Country of Particular Concern For Abusing Religious Freedoms: USCIRF Report

By Joshua Lipes 2021-04-21 -- The U.S. government should redesignate China as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for violating the right to worship freely in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and elsewhere, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in an annual report Wednesday.

China was among 14 countries that USCIRF, a bipartisan and independent federal government body, recommended to the U.S. State Department in its 2021 Annual Report for designation as CPCs because their governments engage in or tolerate "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations." Of the 14, China was among 10 that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2020.

"In 2020, religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated. The government intensified its "Sinicization of religion" policy, particularly targeting religions perceived to have foreign connections, such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism," the report said.

"The authorities also continued their unprecedented use of advanced surveillance technologies to monitor and track religious minorities, and the Measures on Managing Religious Groups became effective in February, further constricting the space in which religious groups can operate."

In particular, USCIRF singled out the abuse of religious freedoms in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.

"Authorities reportedly have sent millions of Muslims to these camps for wearing long beards, refusing alcohol, or exhibiting other behaviors deemed signs of 'religious extremism,'" the report said, noting that former detainees have described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.

Reporting by RFA's Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.

USCIRF also highlighted reports of the use of Uyghur forced labor in the region and the ongoing closures and destruction of Uyghur religious sites, including mosques and shrines important to the community's religious, ethnic and cultural identity.

In January, the U.S. government said that, taken together, Beijing's policies in the region constitute genocide under international law—a designation that was later echoed by the parliaments of several Western nations.

In its recommendations, USCIRF called for Washington to redesignate China as a CPC and to continue to impose targeted financial and visa sanctions on Chinese government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.

The commission also said like-minded countries should be urged to formally determine whether abuses in the XUAR meet the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity under international law, and that the U.S. should boycott the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing if China's crackdown on religious freedom continues.

US steps against XUAR abuses

A redesignation of China as a CPC would be only the latest in a long list of steps taken by the U.S. government to hold Beijing accountable for its policies of persecution in the XUAR.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 21-1 to approve the Strategic Competition Act, a broad bill aimed at shoring up the U.S. geostrategic and economic position vis-a-vis China with investments in diplomacy, economic outreach and alliance-building, and support for Taiwan. The act also includes sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for abuses in Xinjiang.

"The United States will not remain silent as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues its ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the CCP officials responsible for these atrocities will no longer enjoy either anonymity or immunity," said Sen. Ted Cruz, who contributed language to the final bill on the Uyghurs, Taiwan and other issues.

"I am grateful for the shared urgency of my colleagues for confronting these atrocities, including the CCP's brutal and criminal campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations," he said in a statement.

In addition to the genocide designation in January, the Trump administration slapped sanctions last year on several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including XUAR party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China's powerful Politburo, followed Trump's enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA).

The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them. U.S. customs authorities have also blocked imports of wigs and other products believed to be produced by forced labor in the region.

Most recently, U.S. Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation to make Uyghurs who have been persecuted by China eligible for priority refugee processing in the U.S.

The Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act would make it easier for Uyghurs and members of other Turkic or Muslim minority groups to apply for resettlement in the U.S., while encouraging allied nations and partners to implement similar policies, the Senators said in a statement introducing the legislation last week.

"The United States must continue to speak out against [China's] human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and we must also provide assurance and protection for the Uyghurs and all those facing persecution as a result of their religious or ethnic identity," said Coons, who is also co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus.

"To effectively compete with China, we must be the best version of ourselves, including by living our values and welcoming those who have been unjustly imprisoned in or forced to flee Xinjiang."

Rubio said that amidst "egregious" human rights violations, "urgent action is needed to end the atrocities and assist Uyghurs and others facing persecution in Xinjiang … with priority refugee status."

Omar Kanat, head of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) advocacy group, called the proposed legislation "essential" in the U.S. effort to end abuses in the XUAR.

"If governments are serious about responding to the crisis, they must embrace these kinds of measures to ensure that Uyghurs abroad cannot be forcibly returned to China to face persecution and detention," he said.

"This legislation would empower the U.S. government to rescue vulnerable Uyghurs who have escaped China's genocide."

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