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China Reacts To Uighur Bill


Activists cheered after House lawmakers in the U.S. passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on Tuesday. This bill condemns the mass detention of Muslim ethnic minorities, including Uighurs in China, and sanctions the officials accused of being behind the crackdown. China is furious, and NPR's Emily Feng reports on Beijing's defiant reaction.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Darren Byler woke up Tuesday morning and found several emails waiting in his inbox from concerned friends about a Chinese state media editorial lashing out at him and two other academics.

DARREN BYLER: They're basically saying that all the scholars that are reporting about the camps are actually working for the CIA or intelligence services.

FENG: Byler is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder and well-known for his work on Uighur culture and policy in the region of Xinjiang. Now the Xinjiang government was accusing him of being a CIA agent who fabricated lies about China's detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in China.

BYLER: I'm absolutely not affiliated with the U.S. government anywhere, never have been, never will be.

FENG: Specifically, Byler does research on how the U.S. war on terror and counterinsurgency tactics have given Beijing both the methods and ethical cover behind the detention of, at its peak, up to 1.5 million Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang since 2017.

BYLER: I don't see the U.S. as the good guy in this situation, necessarily.

FENG: The same day Byler and other academics were vilified, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its bill. The bill doesn't just sanction responsible Chinese officials but also puts vague export controls on any U.S. technology that aids state-sponsored surveillance. China sees the bill as American interference. Here's Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying this week.

HUA CHUNYING: (Through translator) Do you know what ordinary Chinese people think of this bill the U.S. Congress just passed? This is what they say - the U.S. messed up Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Syria, then Yemen. Now it is trying to mess up China's Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

FENG: This confrontation is emblematic of an increasingly emboldened Beijing. China first denied it was detaining people to, quote, "reeducate" them. Then, last year, it admitted it had detention centers but said they were for vocational training. Since Tuesday, Beijing has been more defiant. It says its hardline measures were necessary counterterrorism efforts. State media outlets have published a flurry of opinion pieces featuring Uighur religious leaders who say they're happier because Xinjiang is safer. Most of the pieces are in English.

ADRIAN ZENZ: This kind of messaging is actually among the most effective.

FENG: Adrian Zenz is a German scholar and now senior fellow at American advocacy group Victims of Communism. He's put together forensically detailed investigations that have given American officials the most precise estimates of detentions in Xinjiang. On Tuesday, he was also falsely labeled a CIA agent by Chinese state media - a sign, he says, Beijing knows it's facing growing global criticism and is effectively shrugging its shoulders and saying, so what?

ZENZ: To not to try to cover up too much but to be more forthright about what they're doing but then to portray that as justified is actually probably a fairly smart propaganda strategy.

FENG: The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass by a wide margin. And it opens up another front between the U.S. and China, both of whom believe, in this case, that they hold the moral high ground. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.