TO THIS BYSTANDER’S eye, US President Donald Trump’s signing into law of property-blocking and visa sanctions on Chinese officials deemed to have committed human rights abuses in Xinjiang looks more to do with domestic US politics than further fraying of the already tattered relations between Washington and Beijing.
The US Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 with bipartisan support, a further example of the hardening attitude of Republican and Democratic lawmakers towards China, a change of direction in US politics in which the president has been in the vanguard. There is no political mileage for him in standing in the way of it.
The White House is also scrambling to limit any damage to the president from a forthcoming book written by the veteran US neo-con diplomat John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security advisor until the two men fell out. Bolton reportedly claims in the book that ‘Trump said that Xi [Jinping] should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do’.
This Bystander would hazard that, if any such discussion took place, Xi probably couched it in vague terms about interring Muslim terrorists, knowing that the US president, famously disinterested in policy detail, was unlikely to press him further on the topic.
China’s response to the new US law was very much along those lines. According to a statement from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress:
Xinjiang-related issues are nothing about human rights, ethnicity or religion at all, but about combating violence, terrorism and extremism…The United States has maliciously attacked China’s counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts, attempting to destroy the favorable situation of stability and development in Xinjiang, according to the statement.
The law is unlikely to do anything to alter Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, and the direct impact of any sanctions is likely to be negligible. Beijing has already ridden out international condemnation over the detentions of up to 1 million people, mostly ethnic Uighurs, in ‘re-education camps’.
Even in this current Alice Through The Looking Glass world of US-China relations, in which the US president condemns China for something he reportedly said it should do, Beijing will regard the law as part of what it sees as Washington’s broader push to weaken it. Thus its response to Trump’s signing will be bombastic, but proportionate and asymmetric.