Wanted: A Coalition to Restrain Beijing | Opinion

Involuntary detention. Mass re-education. Forced sterilization. Ethnic cleansing. The words invoke images of Eastern Europe under the Nazis, or—more recently—the savagery of places like Rwanda or the Balkans. Sadly, however, such horrors are not confined to the past. They are all taking place today in China's western region of Xinjiang, where the country's communist government has launched a broad campaign of repression against its ethnic Muslim minority, known as the Uyghurs.

Over the past half-decade, China has carried out the mass detention of Uyghurs in re-education camps under the pretext of counterterrorism. Chinese President Xi Jinping claims to be acting to combat the "toxicity of religious extremism," and has advocated for the use of "dictatorship" to eliminate Islamist extremism.

The results have been nothing short of horrific. The United Nations estimates that more than a million Uyghurs are now being held by authorities in Xinjiang in "re-education" camps. These facilities, researchers have uncovered, engage in what amounts to brainwashing to eradicate "improper" religious thought, and utilize slave labor to produce cheap consumer goods for export. Evidence of other depravities also abounds, from the forced sterilization of Uyghur women to overt attempts to break up Muslim families in western China.

To its credit, the United States has taken the global lead in criticizing—and penalizing—China's abuses. Over the past year, the Trump administration has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials believed to be responsible for the Uyghurs' detentions. Congress has also passed (and the president has signed) the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which directs the federal government to report on the scope of China's anti-Muslim campaign, thereby laying the predicate for future sanctions.

But much more still can, and should, be done. The United States needs to think deeply about how best to rally the broader international community into taking a more active role in curbing China's human rights abuses.

Forbidden City in Beijing
Forbidden City in Beijing Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

Fortunately, an example of just this sort of international campaign exists in the form of the Helsinki Final Act. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the international community was preoccupied with Soviet expansionism and the USSR's international activities. But with the advent of detente, Western nations began focusing on the Soviet Union's internal behavior—and seeking to shape it as a way of restraining Moscow globally.

The culmination of this effort came in 1975 with the passage of the Helsinki Final Act. That document articulated a bold formula: it conditioned the normalization of trade and political relations between the Soviet bloc and the West on meaningful changes in the way the Kremlin addressed internal issues like religious freedom and political protest. In the years that followed, the resulting architecture of policies and organizations played a significant role in things like facilitating emigration from the USSR, assisting post-Soviet transitions and monitoring elections and the pace of political reform in Ukraine, Central Asia and elsewhere.

The idea still resonates today. China's massive abuses against the Uyghurs cry out for international intervention, but many countries have been stayed from meaningful action (or even mere criticism) by worries over disrupting relations with Beijing or forfeiting lucrative trade. Helsinki, however, proves that there is strength in numbers. By replicating the Final Act's focus on human rights—through extensive monitoring of issues like censorship and Chinese treatment of its ethnic minorities, and consensus-building over the proper global response—the international community can begin to impose concrete costs on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its abhorrent conduct, and do so in multilateral fashion that complicates China's retaliation.

Of course, what worked against the USSR half-a-century ago may not be effective against the CCP today. But the principle undergirding the Final Act—that membership in the modern community of nations requires respect for human rights and an embrace of humanitarian ideals—is an enduring one. It applies to Beijing today just as much as it did to Moscow a half-century ago. Building a global consensus around that understanding represents the first step to forcing China to change course.

Noah Garber is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.