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"'Free the Uighurs' protest" by futureatlas.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Joe Biden made a mistake calling human rights violations in China “cultural differences”

Over the past few years, the world has watched as the civil and political rights of Chinese citizens have been increasingly violated by the Chinese government. This breaching of human rights has become more and more concerning as we continue to witness the suppression of basic freedoms in Hong Kong, and especially as we observe the worsening of the racial genocide of the Uyghurs. Americans who hoped for President Joe Biden to change things found themselves shocked by statements at his most recent presidential town hall where he missed crucial opportunities to condemn the Chinese government.

Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, hope for a productive American intervention in China was almost nonexistent. The former president most notably began a tariff war with China and heightened hostilities with his race-based nicknames for COVID-19. Trump told the media that he refrained from doing much to interfere with the conflicts because he was worried it would hurt trade deals.

With the transition to a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration, many expected adequate attention to be given to the conflicts in China, but have been disappointed by the response thus far.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs) are an ethnic group that live primarily in Xinjiang, China. Most Uyghurs identify as Muslim, which sets them apart from most Chinese as the country remains largely atheist.

For a long time, their cultural differences have put them at odds with people not only in China, but in nearby countries such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In the decade, the Chinese government has turned their focus to the Uyghurs and made attempts to not only suppress, but eliminate, their culture. 

In 2017, an estimated one million Uyghurs were rounded up into facilities that have been compared to concentration camps, and these facilities still exist today. Although China has claimed these camps to be purely for “reeducation and vocational purposes,” the realities are far more disturbing and the violation of human rights is clear. 

The Associated Press released a report detailing that Uyghur women are forced to undergo abortions, sterilizations and other methods of birth control to prevent the growth of the Uyghur population. Reports have also shown families are being separated through these camps and forced to work in factories or various labor camps. 

In addition to the genocide of the Uyghurs, the violation of human rights in Hong Kong is also an issue of great importance that requires U.S. attention.

As of 2020, a new National Security Law has begun to “prosecute peaceful speech, curtail academic freedom and generate a chilling effect on fundamental freedoms in the city” according to Human Rights Watch. 

On Feb. 16, Biden had an opportunity to condemn the actions of the Chinese government at a CNN town hall. However, when asked about his thoughts on these abuses of human rights, Biden dismissed the actions of the Chinese government as a result of cultural differences. His statement became increasingly contradictory as he stated he would “not speak out against what they are doing”, but also declared that, “we must speak up for human rights.” 

Biden’s statements set a harmful precedent by making an excuse for a government that is becoming increasingly authoritarian, crushing the fundamental human liberties of its people and committing horrific attacks.

While the United States is dealing with their own fight for racial equality and rebuilding from the aftermath of the Trump administration, more than ever before our government cannot afford to ignore or disregard the state of human rights elsewhere. Biden must set an example for the work that needs to be done in our own country.

It is important to state that simply pointing out these injustices will never be enough. Action is also required. In order for an intervention to occur though, Americans must be aware of the issue at hand and find the drive to help solve it. 

Drawing attention to the plight of the Uyghur community starts with the leaders of this country, President Biden especially. We must hold him accountable for his actions and words. A larger effort to position the conflicts in China at the front of U.S. news is essential.

Biden has missed an opportunity to speak up, but there are more to come. It is time that he uses them, and follows through on the promises he made throughout his campaign to stand up for the rights of all people. 

Written by Opinions Columnist Lauren Gantman.

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