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How The U.S. Is Responding To China's Mass Detention Of Uighurs, Hong Kong Protests


Hundreds of student protesters in Hong Kong remain holed up on a university campus after violent clashes with police. Meanwhile, as many as a million Uighurs remain in detention in northwestern Xinjiang province, victims of a brutal political campaign that we're learning more about through documents obtained by The New York Times. How the U.S. confronts China's authoritarianism is under scrutiny as China appears to be pressing forward on both fronts.

Among those closely tracking the U.S. response is Sophie Richardson. She's China director at Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the mass detention of Uighurs, quote, "an enormous human rights violation." The Commerce Department has blacklisted a number of Chinese tech companies that it says are involved in this crackdown. How would you characterize the U.S. response to date?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think the U.S.'s response has gone appropriately from the rhetorical into the much more consequential world of sanctions. When the U.S. Department of Commerce placed the entire Xinjiang Public Security Bureau - the police and these eight Chinese tech companies - on the Entities List, it means that no U.S. businesses or other American actors can do business with those entities. And so there are real-world implications in addition to sort of the naming and shaming.

But this position, and a lot of the strong rhetoric that's gone with it, has been weakened periodically, particularly by President Trump lauding President Xi and calling him a terrific guy.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, have these actions actually swayed Xi Jinping?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think the facade of support the Chinese government has claimed for its policies in Xinjiang really is starting to crumble. Some of the governments it claims share its views are backing away from those. It's increasingly under scrutiny, particularly by United Nations experts.

And I think one of the best contributions of The New York Times reporting in the last few days is that it really shows clearly that these are intentional state policies to commit gross human rights violations, and there's really no denying that. In fact, Beijing hasn't denied the authenticity of those documents.

CORNISH: So is China likely to bow to this international pressure?

RICHARDSON: It's not going to want to. It will find all sorts of ways to deny and obfuscate and block that, and it's up to the rest of the world, if it really cares about rights, to make that happen. I mean, if any other government in the world was arbitrarily detaining a million Uighurs, I think we would see a very different response, but China's getting away with it. And I think we have to ask ourselves, if it gets away with that, what else does it get away with?

CORNISH: On the issue of Hong Kong, over the weekend we got a statement from a senior administration official warning against any, quote, "unjustified use of force." How would you characterize this response in comparison?

RICHARDSON: The messaging there has been more about principles rather than about handing down specific condemnations.

CORNISH: Is it because this case is somehow less clear-cut than the situation with the Uighurs?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think it's very clear - I think the U.S. has made it very clear that the Chinese government, with the complicity of Hong Kong authorities, has encroached on rights in Hong Kong. But I think what complicates matters in the last couple of weeks is some acts of violence committed by protesters that makes it a little bit harder for the U.S. to target a message. The other reality is that it's become very clear in the last year or so that the authorities in Hong Kong have no real control over anything themselves, and so U.S. rhetoric directed at Hong Kong is less and less influential.

CORNISH: Given the context of the way past U.S. administrations have tried to approach China on the issue of human rights, where does the Trump administration lie on that spectrum?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think the Trump administration has certainly been much more aggressive, mostly recognizing that trying to coax the Chinese government into respecting established international standards on a lot of different issues really hasn't worked.

Now, the Trump administration certainly has serious problems with its own human rights record, but watching it press ahead with these consequential steps that have negative implications for officials inside China and for major Chinese firms is exactly the kind of approach we think could help raise the price, particularly for committing serious human rights violations.

CORNISH: That's Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. Thank you for your time.

RICHARDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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