Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo to raise Uygur issue with Beijing’s allies on upcoming Central Asian tour

Owen Churchill

The United States’ top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, will raise China’s mass internment of Muslim ethnic minorities with his central Asian counterparts during his upcoming trip to the region, a senior State Department official said on Monday.

During his visit to eastern Europe and central Asia from Friday through January 7, Pompeo will conduct meetings with representatives from a number of countries that have spoken out in support of Beijing’s actions in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where hundreds of thousands of Uygurs and other largely Muslim minority groups are reported to have been sent to mass detention facilities.

The Chinese government maintains that the camps, which it calls “vocational training centres”, are a humane and legitimate response to the threat of terrorism and religious extremism.

A series of recent government leaks have challenged that narrative, shedding light on a coordinated campaign to forcibly intern citizens and subject them to political indoctrination.

Regional officials said recently that all “trainees” in the facilities had “graduated” and found stable employment, claims that have not persuaded critics of Beijing, among them Washington.

The US government had not seen “any kind of significant improvement in the situation there” and remained extremely concerned about Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, said the senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on a background briefing call.

Pompeo’s trip to the region comes as Washington seeks to encourage countries globally to confront the Chinese government on its policies and measures in Xinjiang.

“We continue to raise [the Uygur issue] with our partners and allies and like-minded countries around the world, and it will certainly be a subject on this trip,” the official said of Pompeo’s upcoming travels.

His tour will include a visit to Belarus, marking the first time in 25 years a US secretary of state has visited the country, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union.

In October, Belarus issued a statement at the United Nations on behalf of 54 countries voicing full-throated approval of China’s “counterterrorism” efforts in Xinjiang. The statement also accused Beijing’s critics of “politicising the human rights issue”.

After meetings in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Pompeo will travel to Uzbekistan for multilateral meetings with members of the C5+1 coalition.

1,000 protest in Istanbul over China’s treatment of Uygurs

The C5+1, so named for central Asia’s five nation states – Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – and the US, was established in 2015 as a platform for cooperation on matters including trade, energy and security.

In July, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were among 50 members of the UN human rights council to speak out in support of Beijing’s “counterterrorism and deradicalisation” measures in Xinjiang, commending China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”.

Pompeo’s trip comes as the US seeks to encourage countries globally to confront Beijing on its policies in Xinjiang. Photo: AP

Envoys from four of the five central Asian countries have previously taken part in Chinese government-organised visits to the region, derided by critics as “potemkin” tours where access is highly controlled.

Countries that have publicly voiced support for China’s measures in Xinjiang far outnumber those that have expressed opposition, with the US government being the most vocal in its criticism.

In October, the US administration rolled out sweeping sanctions against 28 government entities and private companies and placed visa restrictions on Chinese officials over what it called Beijing’s “campaign of repression in Xinjiang”.

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US lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing for an even stronger response. In December, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation that would commit the US administration to name and sanction senior Chinese officials it deemed responsible for human rights abuses in the region.

The bill awaits a vote in the Senate, where lawmakers are likely to be preoccupied with the impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump when they return from the winter recess.

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