How Human Rights Issues Have Intensified US-China Relations

As tensions between the US and China intensify, China’s alleged oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang has been cast under the spotlight. In the US Department of State’s 2020 human rights report, China’s actions in Xinjiang were classified as “genocide and crimes against humanity” for the first time, whereas in 2021, the Biden administration announced sanctions against several Chinese government officials under the newly inaugurated President Biden. Evidently, Biden’s administration has taken on a much harsher stance against China than many experts have predicted, according to a Financial Times article, and it will likely continue to focus on issues pertaining human rights in the following years to come.

Tensions between the US and China have intensified as a result of China’s actions in Xinjiang. Source: Caixin Global

The 2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices

Published by the US Department of State, the annual Human Rights Report covers internationally recognized individual, civil, political and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. 

Prior to 2020, Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang have consistently been referred to as “mass detention” and “arbitrary or unlawful killings” in the Human Rights Reports. However, the verbatim used to describe Beijing’s actions in the 2020 report was noticeably harsher, though unsurprising, given how it is consistent with the new administration’s commitment to a tougher stance on the Chinese government’s violation of human rights against the Urghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. 

According to the 2020 report, government authorities in China have “committed genocide against Urghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and crimes against humanity including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilization, and persecution against Urghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.” The harsh tone and jarring accusations in the newest human rights report cements the US’s dire assessment of the Chinese government’s actions in the Xinjiang region.

In unveiling the document, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prefaced that the “trend lines on human rights [have continued] to move in the wrong direction” in various countries, pointing to a list of human rights abuses around the world, including China’s conduct in Xinjiang. He also emphasized that a “broad range of other tools” will be utilized to “stop abuses and hold perpetrators to account” in the future, such as imposing sanctions on Chinese government officials found to have perpetuated the allegations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang when unveiling the 2020 Human Rights Report. Source: Bloomberg

Meanwhile, Beijing has vociferously denied the allegations of genocide. Chinese officials have retaliated that the US should look inwards first regarding human rights abuses, citing the mistreatment of Black Americans and Washington’s destabilizing wars in the Middle East region. Angry remarks were also exchanged on the topic of human rights during the recent meeting between top officials of China and the US held in Alaska, with both sides rebuking the human rights abuses perpetrated by the other party.

China’s State Council Information Office has released an official statement following the publication of the US’s Human Rights Report, announcing that China will shortly issue its own report focused specifically on human rights violations in the US. According to the Xinhua News Agency, this document will detail facts regarding Washington’s incompetent pandemic containment, political chaos resulting from America’s fragile democracy, racial discrimination suffered by ethnic minorities, as well as a growing polarization between the rich and the poor.

In a media briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that China hopes for the US to “abandon double standards, and face up to serious human rights issues such as racism and violent law enforcement, and take concrete measures to protect human rights” within their own country.

During the recent Alaska Meeting, impromptu angry remarks were exchanged between American and Chinese officials on the topic of human rights. Source: Reuters

The Biden Administration’s stand on human rights

Since his Presidential Election campaign back in 2020, President Biden has publicly condemned human rights violations in China, especially the oppression of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Delivering his campaign promise to adopt a more direct approach toward human rights abuses in China, his administration has placed the Xinjiang allegations at the forefront of their foreign affairs policy with China.

In fact, in his first phone call with Chinese President Xi since taking office, President Biden warned that there would be “repercussions” for China’s human rights abuses, emphasizing the US’s commitment to asserting its role as a voice for human rights on the global stage, including at the United Nations and other international agencies.

On 22nd March this year, the US Treasury Department sanctioned two Chinese officials in connection to Xinjiang. In an apparent tit for tat, Beijing retaliated by hitting two commissioners on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom with their own sanctions, all the while denying accusations of abuse in Xinjiang, saying that the camps enacted in the region are only aimed at providing vocational training that is needed to fight extremism.

In response to the US’s allegations, Beijing has accused Washington of sweeping its own domestic human rights issues under the rug. Source: Global Times


How have the Chinese and Americans responded?

Beyond the growing tensions between the two governments, disagreements over human rights abuses have left lasting impacts even among the general populations in both China and the US. 

In the US, a recent Pew Research survey found that 89 percent of US adults consider China as a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner. Many also support taking a firmer approach to the bilateral relationship, with 70 percent viewing the promotion of human rights in China to be more important than maintaining economic relations with China. The same survey found human rights concerns to be an often cited issue when Americans were asked, in an open-ended format, about the first thing that comes to mind when they think of China. One in five respondents mentioned human rights concerns, with 3 percent specifically focusing on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, Chinese consumers have increasingly boycotted major Western brands after the US and other countries have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their role in Xinjiang policy. According to Financial Times, this has left brands such as H&M, Nike and Calvin Klein, in a state of “blind panic,” given how the Chinese market makes up a significant portion of their global revenue.  

Additionally, in response to numerous protests by international human rights groups against China’s hosting of the Olympics in 2022, the US State Department has hinted at the possibility of an Olympic boycott. Although a senior official later clarified that a boycott had not yet been discussed, the Chinese government has already warned Washington against it. 

Around the world, including in America, many have protested against the Chinese government’s alleged actions against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Source: Reuters

Given the heightened awareness surrounding the human rights abuse in Xinjiang and other regions, it is unlikely that these allegations will be allayed anytime soon. President Biden’s harsh stance against human rights abuses will only be met with an equally harsh rhetoric alongside retaliatory measures from President Xi and his government. If the two countries are unable to see eye-to-eye on these issues of human rights, then the bilateral relationship between the US and China might sour further during the Biden administration.

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