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Tibetans-in-exile in Nepal take part in a candlelight vigil after a prominent monk self-immolates to protest Chinese rule. Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

As President Xi Jinping takes Chinese influence to every corner of the world, there remain corners of his own country that his government struggles to control.

The big picture: The Chinese Communist Party has no tolerance for dissent from ethnic minorities, and fears it could be damaged if word of human rights violations against those groups spreads outside China’s borders.

The intrigue: Some U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, are pushing the Trump administration to take a harder line on human rights violations.

"We should not be quiet on this in exchange for a better trade deal, and we should not be quiet on this in exchange for their cooperation on North Korea."
— Rubio, in interview with Axios
The human rights violations

The regions of concern for the Communist Party are Xinjiang — populated by Muslim Uighursand Tibet. China has a long history of repression of the Uighurs and has tried to squash opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet, including by exiling the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhists' spiritual leader.

  • What's happening: Tension between Chinese officials and Uighur separatists in Xinjiang have often led to violent clashes, and nearly 150 Tibetan monks have protested by self-immolation.

Citizens of Xinjiang and Tibet are under strict surveillance and subjected to propaganda campaigns.

  • In Xinjiang, officials are collecting mandatory DNA samples and fingerprints from citizens under the guise of a free health care program, says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are also detained in political education camps that push propaganda about Chinese identity.
  • In Tibet, "local officials [from the Atheist Communist Party] have intruded into core decision-making about how monasteries and nunneries are run," Richardson says. And local schools in Tibet heavily emphasize Mandarin Chinese, stripping children of Tibetan language and culture.

China also tries to surveil and pressure Uighur and Tibetan refugees who have left the country and, in some cases, become foreign citizens.

  • In April, Swedish authorities indicted a man for allegedly spying on Tibetan refugees for the Chinese government.
  • Per Richardson, "Usually, governments will want to say, 'Good riddance, go.' China says, 'You're coming back.'"
The Communist Party's fears

The party worries about two scenarios, according to Yun Sun, who runs the Stimson Center's China program:

  1. Enough dissent could prompt political reform that would challenge one-party rule.
  2. Ethnic autonomy could lead to secession of Xinjiang and Tibet — a de facto disintegration of China.

The stakes: Secession "is not a political scenario that the central Chinese government can afford," Sun says. "It would lose its legitimacy in front of the Chinese people."

  • Yes, but: "Given the reality on the ground, I don't think its possible or likely that [either region] could secede or declare independence," she says.
America's role

While past U.S. presidents have made China's domestic policies a central issue in the bilateral relationship, President Trump has prioritized trade and North Korea. "Even the Chinese acknowledge that the Trump administration has not targeted the domestic politics of China," says Sun."They feel that there's not pressure from Washington."

But Rubio — one of the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an organization created by Congress to monitor human rights in China — co-wrote a letter urging U.S. ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit Xinjiang and take action against human rights violations.

"We need to raise it ... The Chinese prefer it to be done in private," Rubio says.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.