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.”