Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

U.S. Senator and Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26, 2019.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. Democratic Senator Mark Warner says Western countries, including Canada, must speak out more forcefully against China’s crackdown on its Muslim Uyghur minority and use of “bone-chilling” surveillance technology.

Mr. Warner, vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told The Globe and Mail in an exclusive interview that the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in enormous detention camps in China’s northern province of Xinjiang has received minimal international criticism.

“It is pretty remarkable to me that two to three million Uyghurs are in the equivalent of modern-day concentration or re-education camps,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “And there is barely a peep from both Western governments and, for that matter, from Western companies, because of their fear of offending the Chinese.”

Mr. Warner is also part of the Democratic leadership in Congress. He’s one of two vice-chairs of the Senate Democratic Caucus. The other is Elizabeth Warren.

China has set up what human-rights organizations describe as a police state in Xinjiang, including extensive surveillance and internment compounds that U.S. officials estimate hold between 800,000 and three million Muslims.

Read more: Inside China’s campaign against the Uyghurs

There are reports of torture, starvation and unexplained deaths in the camps. Former detainees have said officials forced them to renounce Islam and swear loyalty to the Communist Party. More than one million ethnic Han have also occupied the homes of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang to indoctrinate and monitor them, according to reports.

Beijing has denied it is repressing its Muslim minority, saying the Uyghurs are receiving skills training and the human-rights situation in China has "never been better.” In April, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang accused the United States in particular of having a “Cold War mentality” toward China and to stop interfering in “China’s internal affairs with human rights as a pretext.”

Western countries, including Canada, France, Australia and Germany and Britain, were among a mere handful to speak out on China’s abuse of Uyghurs at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last November.

Canada’s envoy, Rosemary McCarney, said Ottawa was "deeply concerned by credible reports of mass detention, repression and surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.”

Aside from Ms. McCarney’s comments, Uyghur oppression is strikingly absent from official speeches by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

China has been able to use its economic clout to dampen international criticism while making it difficult to learn what is going on in Xinjiang by limiting foreign access to the region.

Open this photo in gallery:

High walls and razor wire surround a facility in the city of Turpan in China’s Xinjiang region that Western researchers say is a political indoctrination centre for Muslim Uyghurs. There are reports of torture, starvation and unexplained deaths in the camps.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The Globe’s Asia correspondent, Nathan VanderKlippe, was the first Western journalist to report from Xinjiang on the establishment of re-education centres. While reporting in the region in 2018, he was threatened with arrest, forced to delete images and subjected to intense harassment and intimidation. He was followed and tailed for nearly 1,600 kilometres by at least nine cars and 20 people and, at times, physically blocked from movement. He was escorted on multiple occasions to police stations and detained, at numerous locations, for well in excess of 10 hours.

U.S. lawmakers – Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and Republican Senator Marco Rubio – are pushing the Trump administration to impose economic sanctions on specific Chinese officials known to play critical roles in the surveillance and detention system in Xinjiang. These sanctions would be imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which Canada has also adopted.

Human Rights Watch earlier this month urged governments to use Magnitsky laws and other targeted sanctions against Beijing’s officials in response to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

While Canada has used the Magnitsky Act to deny visas and freeze assets of Russians involved in human-rights abuses, it has taken no action against Chinese officials and their treatment of Uyghurs.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau declined to say whether Canada would use the Magnitsky Act to impose economic sanctions on Chinese officials. But he said that he has raised the matter with Beijing.

“I have raised on multiple occasions the plight of the Uyghurs in western China with Chinese authorities and leadership and we will continue to make sure that the Chinese government knows there is tremendous concern from Canada, and indeed from around the world, for the fate of, and the plight of, this Muslim minority in western China," Mr. Trudeau said at a media availability in Vancouver.

In April, Ms. Freeland was asked about imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese provincial bosses in Xinjiang, but declined to answer. However, Ms. Freeland said she raised the treatment of Uyghurs in a private meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last September in New York.

Mr. Warner also expressed concern about Beijing’s use of cutting-edge technology to watch over its Uyghur population, including biometric data and networks of cameras with facial-recognition software. China is also selling this gear to countries around the world including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

“China has shown … that they can exert enormous control over their population,” Mr. Warner said. “We have seen from the Chinese a willingness to ... export a type of authoritarian use of technology that I find kind of bone chilling.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Trump administration is considering putting China’s Hikvision on a U.S. technology blacklist because of its role in the surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs. Hikvision is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of video surveillance products and being blacklisted by Washington would severely restrict its ability to conduct business with American companies. The Chinese government, through a state-owned company, is Hikvision’s controlling shareholder.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News earlier this month the Muslim internment camps in Xinjiang “is stuff that is reminiscent of the 1930s that present a real challenge to the United States, and this administration is prepared to take this on.”

With reports from Ian Bailey and Reuters

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe