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Abuse on Uighurs: Empathy as Strategy

Throughout history, state-building has occurred hand in hand with the control of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities. Sadly, history is repeating itself in Xinjiang, China, where female bodies continue to be used as tools for political means. Reports show that mass sterilization and other birth control measures have reduced Uighur birth rates by 48.74% between 2017 and 2019. Uighur women are also subject to systematic rape in internment camps. The CCP’s Pair Up and Become Family Program – a type of big brother surveillance program – forces Uighur women to host CCP party members in their homes and call them their “relatives.” If a Uighur woman refuses a Han man’s hand in marriage, she could be arrested on terrorist charges. The bodies of Uighur men are also abused by the state in the form of forced labor, organ harvesting, imprisonment and torture. Losing control and autonomy over one’s own body in any circumstance is humiliating. It makes one feel angry and hopeless.

What Can Be Done?
First, Americans need to be empathetic, not only to Uighurs, but to everyone. Former National Security Advisor of the United States General H.R. McMaster defines this as strategic empathy, as it involves trying to “understand how the world looks to others and how those perceptions, as well as emotions and aspirations, influence their policies and actions.” Understanding why China commits human rights abuses is important – not to justify, but to strategize. Uighurs are seen as a threat because of the Communist Party’s weakness: its insecurity about its extremely tight grip on power. Crushing Muslim religious freedom in China has been deemed essential for national security, not only because the Party refuses to tolerate any culture that does not unequivocally abide to its totalitarian regime, but also to advance the Belt and Road Initiative in the heart of Eurasia.

From Empathy to Strategy
The Trump administration declared this abuse genocide. President Joe Biden has worked with G7 leaders to impose joint sanctions on Chinese officials and has committed to secure supply chains to avoid being complicit. Calls have already been made to push U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to demand a visit to Xinjiang. If China refuses, he should request to visit Turkey’s Istanbul neighborhoods, Zeytinburnu and Sefakoy, where many Uighurs live and still fear China’s grasp. This would portray a strong diplomatic message. Another diplomatic strategy would be to mobilize support for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. This would be extremely powerful as it would demonstrate that China must be held accountable for all its misbehavior and offenses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, the South China Sea, as well as its exportation of digital authoritarianism, its cyberattacks, and many other affronts. This would show that the international community does not legitimize the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Finally, we must listen. Check out Uighur intellectual Tahir Hamut Izgil’s story. Pay attention to events in DC led by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Uyghur American Association. It might not seem like there is much we can do, but we must do what we can. We must be grateful for our systems, find strength in hopeless times, protect press freedom and protect democracy where we can.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Peggy-Jean Allin
Publish Date
August 9, 2021