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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China has detained an estimated 1 million to 2 million Uighur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang, and millions more live one step away from detention under the watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party.

Why it matters: It has been two years since the internment camps first came to light internationally, and a series of reports from Xinjiang have made vivid the scale of the abuses. Yet foreign governments and corporations are content to pretend it isn't happening.

"If right now, just about any other country in the world was found to be detaining over 1 million Muslims of a certain ethnicity, you can bet we’d be seeing an international outcry," says Sophie Richardson, china director for Human Rights Watch.

  • "Because it's China, which has enormous power in international institutions these days, it's hard to muster any response at all."
  • "There has been this almost childlike hope that as China gets wealthier and more secure it would change" and adapt to international norms, Richardson says. Instead, China is using its economic clout and influence at the UN to undermine those norms.

China has long waged a campaign of "assimilation and cultural destruction" in Xinjiang, but under President Xi Jinping it has "dramatically escalated," says Omer Kanat, a prominent Uighur activist. "The camps are designed to eradicate the Uighur's religious and ethnic identity once and for all."

  • China used to deny the camps existed; it now claims they're voluntary and designed to root out extremism.

But a new Human Rights Watch report reveals Chinese authorities use an app to track nearly every aspect of Uighurs' lives and deem activities that have nothing to do with terrorism — keeping to oneself, using too much electricity, donating to a mosque — suspicious.

  • "These dubious criteria are being used to identify large numbers of people, many of whom are then arbitrarily locked up," Richardson tells Axios.
  • Even those who aren't locked up live under constant surveillance, as a recent NY Times interactive demonstrates.

What they're saying:

  • Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, which borders Xinjiang but has a deep economic reliance on China, told the FT in March: "Frankly, I don't know much about" what’s happening to the Uighurs.
  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo gave a similar answer, despite leading the world's largest majority-Muslim country.
  • UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appeared to tiptoe around the issue on a visit to China last week.
  • Meanwhile the CEO of Volkswagen, which has a factory in Xinjiang, claimed last month that he was "not aware" of the mass detentions.
  • The Organization of Islamic Cooperation went so far as to praise China in March for "providing care to its Muslim citizens," while in February Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman defended China's "right" to crack down on its Muslim citizens "for its national security."
  • The U.S. and EU have spoken out, as has Turkey, but as a Council on Foreign Relations report points out, "no country has taken action beyond issuing critical statements."

Between the lines: "This is a difficult issue to address precisely because China has the world's second-largest economy" and is "ruthless" when challenged, says John Herbst, a former longtime diplomat now at the Atlantic Council. "Countries are not going to make this a critical issue in their relations with China."

What to watch: "What's happening in Xinjiang now didn’t happen overnight," Richardson says. "If analysts like us didn't see this coming — and I freely admit we didn't — I wonder what we're missing that’s coming next."

Go deeper

Brazil's health minister tests positive for COVID during UN summit in N.Y.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga in Brasilia, Brazil, in May. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Queirog has tested positive for COVID-19 while in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he confirmed Tuesday night.

Why it matters: Hours earlier, Queirog had accompanied Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the UNGA. The Biden administration expressed concern last week that the gathering of world leaders could become a coronavirus "superspreader event."

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Trump sues New York Times and his niece over tax report

Former President Trump hosting a boxing match in Hollywood, Florida on Sept. 11. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Trump filed a $100 million lawsuit against the New York Times and his niece Mary Trump on Tuesday over the news outlet's 2018 reporting on his tax records, the Daily Beast first reported.

Details: The suit, filed in New York's Dutchess County, alleges NYT journalists "engaged in an insidious plot to obtain confidential and highly-sensitive records" and that they "convinced" Mary Trump to "smuggle records out of her attorney's office and turn them over to The Times."

House passes government funding, debt ceiling bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The House passed a bill on Tuesday to fund the government through early December, along with a measure to raise the debt ceiling through December 2022.

Why it matters: The stopgap measure, which needs to be passed to avoid a government shutdown when funding expires on Sept. 30, faces a difficult journey in the Senate where at least ten Republicans would need to vote in favor.