A video surfaced recently of Chinese officials herding a large group of blindfolded Uighur people onto trains in northern China.
The aerial footage is reported to have been taken last year, but the details surrounding the incident are unknown. What is increasingly clear, however, is that China is carrying out horrific human rights abuses against Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking minority residing in China’s Xinjiang region.
Olivia Enos, The Heritage Foundation’s senior policy analyst for the Asian Studies Center, joins “Problematic Women” to explain what we do know about these human rights abuses and what action America is taking in response.
Also on today’s show, we discuss Planned Parenthood finally admitting that its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a racist. Plus, we break down the Netflix documentary “Athlete A” and how USA Gymnastics tried to hide the sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar. And as always, we’ll be crowning our problematic woman of the week.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Kelsey Bolar: And now we are going to talk about the human rights abuses that are unfolding in China as we speak. We wanted to talk about this story for two reasons.
One, as women and members of the freest and most prosperous society in the world, I believe it’s our duty to use our voices to stand up for the human rights abuses faced by others. Secondly, because I think this story brings some important perspective to the national conversations we’re having right now in America over issues of inequality and race.
So, on that note, we are going to bring in Olivia Enos, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Policy Center. Olivia focuses on these Chinese human rights abuses. Olivia, first off, we want to welcome you to the show.
Olivia Enos: Thanks so much for having me.
Bolar: I’m going to share some background about what we’re about to talk about, the Uighur minority in China. So, the Uighurs are predominantly a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority ethnic group located in the northwest region. Olivia, you’re going to have to help me pronounce this.
Bolar: Xinjiang. Post-911, the Chinese communist regime has increasingly viewed the Uighur population as a separatist, terrorist, and extremist threat. Multiple incidents of terrorism were linked to the Uighur minority, but the Chinese government began using those few incidents to justify wide-scale religious persecution and eventually cultural genocide.
By 2017, more than 1 million Muslim minorities, including Uighurs, have been taken to detention camps without any proper trials. Detainees are forced to show their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and deny their Islamic faith. Forced labor and torture are common.
Most recently, and very troubling, we have learned from an AP report that Uighur women are facing widespread, forced sterilizations and abortions. Olivia, this has led many experts to start describing what’s happening here as a cultural genocide. Would you agree?
Enos: Yeah, I think this is a really interesting area because what we are seeing, and a lot of this came out of Adrian Zenz’s report—he’s with the Victims Of Communism Memorial Foundation—is that Uighurs are being subject to forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced birth control in ways that are really severe.
And part of the definition of genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an entire community based off of a particular identifier. That’s whether it’s religious or ethnic or otherwise. And that does seem to be present. At least, Adrian advocates for this, and now individuals in Congress, including the Congressional Executive Commission on China, has sent a letter to Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo asking the administration to issue an atrocity determination, whether that’s crimes against humanity or genocide.
This is an evolving part of our Heritage work on Xinjiang and on the severe human rights violations that are being perpetrated. But I think it’s definitely something worth exploring, whether genocide is in fact taking place there.
But I think there can be absolutely no question that the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to control Uighur births and the size of their population is yet another way that the Chinese Communist Party is victimizing women; in this case, Uighur women. Because this really does fall in line with broader Chinese government policies, previously the one-child policy, now the two-child policy, and other forms of birth restrictions that they’ve applied broadly.
But the unique targeting of Uighurs is something special and particularly pernicious in light of what you highlighted, Kelsey—that they are facing severe human rights violations today.
Virginia Allen: So, Olivia, can you get into a little bit more just about what we know about this forced sterilization and abortions? I mean, are we hearing stories from women that have survived this? Where is the information coming from?
Enos: Yeah, so we’re definitely hearing it from women who have survived this. There’s one woman, her name is unfortunately escaping me, but she was held in the political reeducation facilities where she was injected with unknown substances that rendered her infertile.
And she already had children prior to being interned in these political reeducation camps. And when she came out, she had triplets who had been housed in government facilities during her absence. One of the triplets died, and the two others had severe health-related issues afterwards.
So, there’s some speculation that the Chinese Communist Party has been testing various substances on Uighur women and Uighur children for a long time now.
But I think Adrian’s study was really kind of the first of its kind to delve deeply and explore whether or not this is a more widespread phenomenon. And what he’s found is that amongst Uighurs, I mean the population rate is down substantially in terms of population growth.
And the rate of IUDs that are being implanted are disproportionately high among Uighur women. And I mean, you have to put this in the context of, these are Uighur Muslims.
They believe that births are a blessing. And so to have this type of infringement is not only a personal violation on a very real, physical level, but it’s also a violation of Uighur consciences and their freedom of religion. And so I think this is really quite problematic on so many levels, but obviously we’re starting to see more systematic uncovering of this information.
Bolar: And Olivia, one of the challenges in all of this is finding out what’s actually happening, because China controls the flow of information about everything.
I think a lot of Americans have woken up to this reality in the way that they handled the coronavirus pandemic. But do we have any idea how long these forced sterilizations, forced IUD implantations, and forced abortions have been going on? And as an expert, how do you try to follow what’s actually happening in regards to this type of human rights abuse when it is so difficult to find and gather accurate information?
Enos: Yeah. Well, I mean, we’ve been hearing about the political reeducation camps in China since around 2017 or so, maybe a little bit earlier than that. And so we know that in terms of the systematic collectivization of Uighurs, the rounding up of them and placing them in political reeducation facilities has been happening for several years and going on for a while.
But the persecution of Uighurs, whether it’s restricting their births or otherwise, actually predates some of the camps. It just hasn’t been done on quite so systematic of a level.
Uighurs have been historically persecuted for, I mean, generations now, for decades. And as you mentioned, after 2001, it only heightened even more. And so we do know that this has been a part of the Chinese government’s attempts to limit the non-Han Chinese populations, which the Uighurs would be among them, but also of course Tibetans and otherwise.
But we are really seeing that it’s been happening more since the camps were started because the Chinese Communist Party can control people in the camps in ways that they absolutely could not before. People go into the camps; they cannot leave the camps. They stay there until the Chinese Communist Party deems them sufficiently indoctrinated.
And they’re subjected—[as] you mentioned, Kelsey—to that forced indoctrination, forced Mandarin lessons, basically confessing of their not being Chinese enough and having to fundamentally change their culture and change the way that they practice their faith. And this is very, very concerning. And it does seem to be an attempt to eradicate and eliminate them as a people group.
Allen: So, Olivia, you say that this oppression has been going on of the Uighur people and persecution for generations. Do we know how and why that started?
Enos: So, I mean, as Kelsey mentioned at the beginning, there is this false narrative that all Uighurs, because they are Muslim, are terrorists, which we know is patently false.
And so, I think, definitely after 9/11, there was an attempt to tamp down even further on them. But I think that it’s really fear of “other.” And also I think that the Chinese Communist Party really does fear allegiance to anything other than the Chinese Communist Party.
And so, they see religion as a threat to their grip on power. And so, that’s why you’ve seen the Chinese government targeting Uighurs, but not just Uighurs, targeting Tibetan Buddhists, targeting Falun Gong, targeting Christians and Catholics, people who owe their allegiance to a higher authority.
And so, I think that this is fundamentally threatening to the Chinese Communist Party, which is why they engage in this. But in particular, after 9/11, they co-opted some of the language around counterterrorism strategies that the U.S. implemented, and misused and abused it for their own faulty purposes in order to tamp down on the Uighur Muslim population.
And this is obviously wrong. It’s been misused. And I think that is ultimately their motive. But there’s a secondary motive, too. The Chinese Communist Party sees the Uighurs as a separatist movement, not just a terrorist movement.
And the Chinese Communist Party defines its primary foreign policy and domestic policy goals as well as maintaining its own internal stability and safeguarding its sovereignty. So, it sees a separatist movement as fundamentally threatening to that. And I think that’s another reason why they’ve tamped down on individuals in Xinjiang.
And I would note here, this is a huge part of the reason why I contend that the U.S. shouldn’t relegate human rights issues as non-strategic, non-national security-oriented issues, because the Chinese government itself doesn’t see these as tertiary or peripheral issues. They see them as central.
They see tamping down on Uighurs and engaging in severe human rights violations as their primary means of maintaining their grip on power. And so, keeping that in context should influence how and in what ways we advocate for policy changes and how and in what ways we elevate the Uighur cause.
Bolar: That’s such an important point, and one that I have not often seen or heard mentioned in the media, but I do agree we need to start talking about and viewing these human rights violations in the larger context of national security.
I know just last week I saw this video going viral that showed, it was drone footage that reportedly was taken sometime last year, of blindfolded Uighur people being herded into trains and taken somewhere. It really reminds you of images that we’ve seen from the Holocaust.
I’ve since learned that this video, again, I believe it was released sometime last September. But on that note, do you think the United States has had a strong and bold response to the human rights violations that we’ve seen?
And do you think some of these images or news stories about the forced sterilizations and forced abortions are changing the way that anyone in Washington is thinking about the appropriate way to respond here?
Enos: Prior to the last couple of weeks, I would have said that the Trump administration’s response to the Uighur human rights violations was timid at best. But now that these new revelations have come out, I think it’s added an additional edge to just how severe the crisis is.
I mean, it’s certainly enough that there’s 1 [million] to 3 million Uighurs held in political reeducation facilities. But that added layer of an attempt to eliminate in whole or in part a people group, it does kind of add an additional pernicious layer to this.
And so, we did see the Trump administration finally, finally, sanctioning Chen Quanguo, who is a Chinese Communist Party official responsible for overseeing what’s going on in Xinjiang. And he piloted a lot of these horrific policies when he was serving in a prior role in Tibet, where he rolled out massive surveillance technology that allowed people to be collectivized, to be picked up on the streets, surveilled, and taken into custody.
And he piloted that in Tibet and carried it out in Xinjiang. And he did it with the help of other Chinese Communist Party officials who are finally being sanctioned. And this is huge. This is a huge success.
And they didn’t stop there. They also targeted other entities who were complicit and have been targeting the use of forced labor in these camps, which we also have not raised throughout this conversation, but it’s another area of severe human rights violations.
Goods produced with forced labor in Xinjiang have made their way into the U.S. market. And thankfully, the Customs and Border Patrol and the Commerce Department have been able to stop those shipments.
And hopefully, there will be economic consequences to businesses found with those goods in their supply chain. … [T]here’s definitely a need to tamp down on that more.
So, I think there’s been some improvements in the response, but I think some of the rhetoric early on and the lack of action and failure to sanction Chen Quanguo early on was a real oversight.
So, hopefully this is not just one more attempt to hold Beijing accountable for its transgressions. Hopefully, they see holding Chinese Communist Party officials and businesses complicit in forced labor as first steps or first few steps that are a part of a broader strategy to combat the Chinese Communist Party’s misdeeds.
Allen: Yeah, no, Olivia, I think it’s really, like you say, it’s encouraging to see that there are finally a little bit more concrete actions being taken, like the sanctions. Because I think when we’re dealing with China’s leadership, it’s such a different mindset than we have in America.
I was really fascinated. I saw an interview, a BBC interview, on “The Andrew Marr Show,” that came out just last week where Andrew Marr invited China’s ambassador to London onto the show.
And he played that clip that has been floating around all over Twitter, has gone viral, of the Uighur people being brought onto these trains, blindfolded, kneeling. And [Marr] asked him, “What do you have to say about this?” And want to play a little bit of that interview for our listeners to hear that was posted by The Guardian. So, take a listen.
Liu Xiaoming: I cannot see … . This is not the first time you showed me. I still remember last year, you showed me what is happening in Xinjiang. But let me tell you this. Have you been to Xinjiang yourself?
Andrew Marr: No, I never have.
Liu Xiaoming: Xinjiang is regarded as the most beautiful place in Xinjiang. There’s a Chinese saying, you do not know how big Chinese …
Andrew Marr: Ambassador, that is not beautiful coverage, however, is it? Can I ask you why people are kneeling, blindfolded, and shaven and being led to trains in modern China? What is going on there?
Liu Xiaoming: I do not know where you get this videotape.
Allen: So, Olivia, I think that this is so revealing of China’s leaders. So, when we see this type of interaction where an ambassador who, gosh, this is incredibly sobering, should have answers to this, he has an opportunity to give an explanation to the world, and he’s beating around the bush so clearly. So I mean, what does this reveal about the way that the U.S. needs to be dealing with China’s leadership?
Enos: The interview with the ambassador is both laughable and horrifying simultaneously, because he cannot come up with an answer. Because at the end of the day, the Chinese Communist Party cannot deny the horrific human rights violations that they’re engaging in.
And the party requires absolute loyalty. So, the guy’s in a difficult position being put on the spot during the BBC interview. But the fact that he cannot answer, that he cannot excuse the horrors that are taking place, that he instead spends time describing the region and how beautiful it is, it’s just absolutely appalling.
And I think that it demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party can’t deny the fact that there are millions of Uighurs there. And at first, and this would be a couple of years ago, they denied the existence of the camps. Then, they later acknowledged it because we have satellite imagery data that proves it.
And we have testimony from people who have been inside of these camps. And it’s just absolutely undeniable at this point. And so, I think you’re just seeing revealed there the horrors in plain sight of what the Chinese Communist Party is engaging in, and what they can’t deny is very powerful.
Bolar: Olivia, thank you so much for joining us today. For anyone listening who wants to learn more about this or perhaps have a few resources that they could share with their friends, what would you recommend?
Enos: I would definitely recommend a paper that I wrote for Heritage, I believe it was last year, on how to respond to the crisis in Xinjiang.
It lays out additional recommendations for what the U.S. government can do to respond. And I think some that haven’t been mentioned during this conversation would include appointing a special coordinator for Xinjiang who could be responsible for ensuring that U.S. efforts are concerted and ongoing to address the severe atrocities taking place there.
Other ones would be really amping up our efforts to combat forced labor in Xinjiang.
And I mean, I think, finally would just be pressing at the highest levels of the U.S. government, whether it’s Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo, the vice president, or the president himself, calling for the release of all political prisoners in China and not just the 1 [million] to 3 million Uighurs held in political reeducation facilities.
But I would also turn to other people beyond Heritage, like Sophie Richardson at Human Rights Watch and, of course, Adrian Zenz at Victims Of Communism Memorial Foundation, who are doing cutting-edge work on these issues. So, for those who are curious, there’s no lack of resources, and there’s no denying what’s going on.
Allen: Olivia, thank you. This has been so, so informative. We just really appreciate you coming on.
Enos: Well, thank you so much for having me, Virginia and Kelsey.