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Ahead of China hearing, lawmakers share 'next steps' the U.S. can take for Uyghurs

Protesters in Washington, D.C., gathered earlier this month to mark the anniversary of the 1997 Ghulja massacre of Uyghur protesters in the Xinjiang province of China.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
Protesters in Washington, D.C., gathered earlier this month to mark the anniversary of the 1997 Ghulja massacre of Uyghur protesters in the Xinjiang province of China.

Updated February 28, 2023 at 1:13 PM ET

The U.S-China relationship will come under further scrutiny on Tuesday night, when a newly created House committee focused on the strategic challenge China poses holds its first hearing in prime time.

It's likely to cover a lot of ground, including security concerns around TikTok and Chinese aggression over Taiwan, as NPR's Deirdre Walsh reports.

The full name of the bipartisan panel is the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. And that wording is intentional, its leaders told NPR.

"We want to make sure that we are constantly making a distinction between the party and the people," said Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the committee. "The threat comes from the party. We don't have a quarrel with the Chinese people, and the Chinese people are often the primary victim of CCP oppression and repression."

Gallagher and Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat on the panel, spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep ahead of the hearing.

In a wide-ranging conversation, both lawmakers shared their concerns about China — including its treatment of Uyghurs, the largely Muslim ethnic group living in the western province of Xinjiang.

Authorities there are accused of rounding up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and sending them to detention centers where they are taught Mandarin Chinese and Chinese political ideology. Detainees have reported that they were forced to work in factories and that their children were sent away to state boarding schools.

In recent years as U.S.-China relations deteriorated, the U.S. has called those actions a genocide, a label that China rejects (even though its ambassador to the U.S. told NPR last year that it was re-educating Uyghurs).

The U.S. has taken some actions, including sanctioning Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and passing the Forced Labor Prevention Act, which requires companies to certify they are not using forced Uyghur labor. But the lawmakers want to do more — starting by raising awareness and building support for what Gallagher calls "practical next steps."

"I think in Xinjiang, we're seeing a preview of the future that the Chinese Communist Party has in store, not only for the rest of their citizens, a future of total techno-totalitarian control, but increasingly a model they want to export around the world," he says. "So I do think we have an important function in terms of shining a light on these horrible human rights abuses from there."

What else can the U.S. do?

Uyghur-American journalist Gulchehra Hoja spoke to Morning Edition last week about her experiences growing up in Xinjiang, leaving for the U.S. and reporting on her homeland from abroad, and the repercussions her family faced as a result.

And she offered a message to the Chinese government:

"Even you lock down so many millions of people, even you kill them, you cannot kill their hope, and you cannot kill their dream," she said. "Even they monitor them 24/7, but you never know what is inside their heart. Our country is alive in our heart. No power can change that."

Inskeep played those words to the lawmakers on Tuesday and asked: What can the U.S. do for the people of Western China?

Gallagher says the next step would be ensuring full implementation of the Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in Dec. 2021.

He would also like to impose more control on U.S. investments in China so that "we are not unwittingly funding communist genocide or [People's Liberation Army] modernization," which he sees as a job for lawmakers in Congress.

Krishnamoorthi notes that fundamental human rights are at stake, and that the U.S. could be doing more to protect them than it has in the past.

Decades ago, Congress would hold regular hearings on China's treatment of Tibetans — but stopped after China gained entry to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

"I think that when we started delinking, for instance, preferred trade status to progress on human rights starting in the 1990s ... I think we gave [China] carte blanche to do whatever the heck they want with the Uyghurs — and for that matter, Tibetans or Hong Kongers and so forth," he says. "And I think we need to take another look at this going forward."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.