US President Donald Trump, alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), and US Senator John Barrasso
US President Donald Trump, alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), and US Senator John Barrasso
SAUL LOEB / AFP

The Americans have added insult to injury so far as China is concerned with a measure permitting sanctions for human rights abuses against Xinjiang’s Muslim Uyghurs. The move comes in the wake of expressions of sympathy for Taiwan’s desire to join the World Health Organisation and allegations that the Chinese endangered the world community by trying to hush up the Wuhan pandemic.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was passed under the Senate’s unanimous consent rules which dispenses with the need for a vote, directs the White House to report to Congress within 180 days identifying those responsible for torture, extrajudicial detention, forced disappearance and other “flagrant denial[s]” of human rights in Xinjiang. These individuals would be subject to sanctions, including the freezing of assets in the US and denial of entry to the country. Both Republicans and Democrats, including former Democratic presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, supported the measure. Apart from sanctions, the legislation also directs the State Department to produce a public report on the state of human rights in Xinjiang, including estimates of the number of individuals detained in the mass internment camps that Beijing claims are voluntary “vocational training centres”.

Different versions of the bill were passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate last year. Thursday’s passage, coming at a time when Congress has been largely focused on legislative responses to the pandemic, is a sign of substantial bipartisan consensus around some China-related issues even if some Democrats are concerned that language targeting China risks stirring up anti-Asian racism in the US.

From the Chinese point of view, the new measure is the latest step in a continuing international campaign to isolate and demonise China. Apart from President Donald Trump, the Chinese blame Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Murdoch-owned right-wing media like Fox News for a campaign that they trace back to the sacking and burning of the Summer Palace in Beijing first in 1860 and then, more completely, in 1900. By coincidence, one of the central characters of that desecration was Lord Elgin, whose father, the previous Lord Elgin, removed the so-called "Elgin marbles" from Greece.

The vandalism has not been forgotten or forgiven. Indian memories of the uprising of 1857 or the Jallianwala Bagh massacre are nothing compared to the deep sense of anguish in China. As everyone in China is taught, the Summer Palace was once the most beautiful collection of architecture and art in the country. Its Chinese name was Yuanmingyuan – Garden of Perfect Brightness – where Chinese emperors had built a huge complex of palaces and other fine buildings, and filled them with cultural treasures.

It's destruction followed the demand in 1900 by eight (Japan, Russia, Britain, the US, France, Austria, Germany and Italy) powers for 450 million taels of silver – about 18,000 metric tonnes and estimated to be worth around US$ 333 million – as indemnity after losing a short war. The value was 15 times the highest annual revenue ever collected by the Qing dynasty emperors. It followed the invasion by 18,811 troops from seven members of the eight-nation alliance. The forces of the eighth, Germany, was still at sea but took its share of silver when they came. The attack was launched to quell what is known as the Boxer Rebellion, a bloody xenophobic rampage by mobs that resulted in the loss of Western lives and damage to Western property.

About 150,000 Chinese soldiers resisted the invaders at first, but using information gleaned from civilians, the foreigners soon broke through and routed the vastly outgunned Qing army. The fighting was over in just 10 days. The ransacking, looting and burning of the Summer Palace followed.

While that memory still rankles, China stoutly denies US accusations about mistreating the Uyghurs or suppressing COVID-19. Xi Jinping vigorously defended his government’s record at the World Health Assembly in Geneva on Monday, arguing that China “acted with openness, transparency and responsibility”. He also backed the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom President Trump now accuses of colluding with Beijing although, initially, he praised the Chinese response to the crisis. “If the World Health Organisation does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of the United States funding to the WHO permanent and reconsider our membership in the organisation,” Mr Trump has threatened. “I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organisation that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests”.

China – like India – is very skeptical about apparent US concern for human rights. As this column has noted before, successive American presidents discover a fondness for Tibet and the Dalai Lama whenever they have bilateral problems with China. They then manage “accidentally” to meet and talk to His Holiness. The tactic never fails to annoy and alarm the Chinese who don’t know how seriously it should be taken.

Recently, the Americans have also begun to express similar sympathy for Hong Kong. The Taiwan card was for a long time the most potent in the pack but no one now expects it to provoke a conflagration. Yet, there is always an incalculable element in US diplomacy, and the Chinese can never be sure of where Mr Trump’s rhetoric will lead him. They have not forgotten how the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ended.

On November 27, 2002, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency went to Iraq to check whether it had any such weapons. Both reported to the UN Security Council on January 9, 2003, that there were no smoking guns. But evidence or no evidence, President George W Bush’s mind had been made up. He announced on January 28, 2003, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” His Secretary of State Colin Powell then told the UN that Iraq did indeed source the uranium. “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources…facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” he declared, holding up a vial of white substance, which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin mocked as “the Colin Powell brand of detergent”.

All the so-called evidence was later found to be fabrication. But on March 20, US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq anyway. Of course China does not really fear a repetition of that aggression. But given its own bullying of vulnerable neighbours in the South China Sea, it suits China’s strategy to act as if the threat were real.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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