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Top 2020 Dems would punish China over mass detentions of Uighurs

Chinese flag over barbed wire fence
Photo: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Several of the leading Democratic presidential contenders told Axios that if elected, they would go further than the Trump administration in confronting China over its imprisonment of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

Why it matters: It has been two years since the internment camps — which activists say are designed to erase the Uighur identity — first came to light internationally. The Trump administration has considered imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over the camps, but has yet to act amid threats of retaliation.

Over the last week, Axios asked the top 2020 Democratic candidates how they would address the situation in Xinjiang if elected.

  • Specifically, would they support putting companies that build the Uighur detention camps and their surveillance system on the Commerce Departments' Entity List? And would they use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction the people running the camps?

State of play:

  • Would support, at a minimum, both measures: Former VP Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro.
  • Proposed an alternative strategy: Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. [Worth noting: Warren is the only senator running for president who signed a bipartisan letter to Trump administration officials in April urging greater export controls and Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials overseeing the Xinjiang policy.]
  • Did not respond to multiple requests for a comment: Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. [Worth noting: Harris and Michael Bennet are the only senators running for president who did not co-sponsor the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act in January.]
  • Declined to comment: Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
  • Read their full responses here.

Context: Earlier this week, 37 countries — including North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Russia, among other mostly-authoritarian states — signed a letter defending China's policies in Xinjiang.

The bottom line: Most of the world has been largely silent on this issue due in large part to China’s economic clout and penchant for lashing out over criticisms of its internal affairs. Trump administration officials have repeatedly criticized China but not acted on concrete proposals to impose costs on Beijing.

A State Department spokesman told Axios that the Trump administration "remains deeply concerned about these abuses, is committed to holding human rights violators accountable for their actions, and is implementing a whole-of-government response to address these concerns."

  • "This includes strengthening U.S. diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts around the world, and conducting outreach to U.S. companies with business in Xinjiang to urge them to implement human rights safeguards, thereby ensuring their commercial activities are not contributing to China’s campaign of repression," the spokesman added. Link to the full response.

Candidate responses

Visual: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected to say that Sen. Michael Bennet also did not sign the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act in January.