U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the G20 summit this week. After months of stalled negotiations on the trade war, the two countries are reaching a key point, with the prospect looming of Washington raising tariffs on Beijing.
If the two countries do make any progress on trade, however, some experts worry that the Trump administration may soften its criticism of Beijing on a different issue: human rights.
Senior officials had in recent months been slamming China for detaining an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims in internment camps in the northwestern Xinjiang region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in September that they were being “held against their will in so-called reeducation camps where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.” The next month, outgoing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley noted, “It is the largest internment of civilians in the world today—it may be the largest since World War II.” Vice President Mike Pence lamented that “for a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights. But in recent years, China has taken a sharp U-turn.”
The language of human rights has not always enjoyed such prominence in Trump’s Washington. In the past, some within the administration, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have been reluctant to make U.S. foreign policy conditional on human rights. When Trump withdrew the United States from the UN Human Rights Council in June, many interpreted the move to mean he was putting such issues on the back burner. And after the president responded reticently to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some, like my colleague David Graham, saw it as “the end of American lip service to human rights.”
Even as supporters of the Uighur cause welcome the renewed prominence of human-rights rhetoric in regards to China, they also fear that U.S. officials may be instrumentalizing it as part of a broader anti-Beijing offensive that has grown to include accusations of everything from cyber theft to election meddling.
John Kamm, an influential businessman-turned-activist whose Dui Hua Foundation works to free prisoners of conscience in China, spelled out the worry: “If this is just a negotiation tool, then it can be dropped as a negotiation tool at any time,” he said. “If Trump and Xi get together in Buenos Aires [for the G20], and they patch things up and there’s a big trade deal and the relationship is back on track, if as part of that … it turns out that this was just a negotiating tool, of course I’ll be very disappointed.”
If the U.S. is perceived to be instrumentalizing human rights, that can make it easier for Beijing to control the narrative, according to James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University. “From the Chinese point of view, it’s very easy to characterize international concerns about human rights as simply part of a raft of complaints,” he said. “They can diminish our concerns about human rights by saying they’re just part of a Trump campaign to criticize and contain China.”
A State Department spokesperson insisted in an email that the administration has advocated consistently for human rights in China, writing, “We have used many of the tools available to us to hold officials accountable for abuses.” Notably, last year the former Beijing police chief Gao Yan was among the first ever tranche of foreign officials sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act for his role in the death of an activist held in government custody.
The spokesperson also said that the U.S. is now considering targeted sanctions against Xinjiang officials involved with the internment camps, adding, “China’s claims that these camps are ‘humane job-training centers’ are preposterous.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Bob Menendez, introduced a bill in Congress this month advocating for a range of U.S.-government actions on China, including sanctioning Xinjiang officials under the Global Magnitsky Act. “The president needs to have a clear and consistent approach to China,” Menendez said in a statement, “and not turn a blind eye as a million Muslims are unjustly imprisoned and forced into labor camps by an autocratic regime.”
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to the president who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told me that the Trump administration is one of the few governments in the world that can advocate successfully for human rights in China. “They are demonstrating that they are the only administration since China rose to its power that’s willing to stand up to certain things,” he said. That’s partly because of Trump’s willingness to punish Xi economically, as seen in his recent embrace of foreign aid to undercut Chinese geopolitical influence, and his threat to add more tariffs to China’s exports if talks at the G20 don’t yield a deal.
But Trump, for his part, has signaled that he’d rather be done with punishing Xi. Although the two leaders’ rapport deteriorated with the trade war, their old friendship may soon get back on track. Trump this month called Xi a “great guy, great man from China.”