When allegations first surfaced that China was spiriting Uighurs and other Muslims away from their homes in the autonomous far-western Xinjiang region and sending them to detention camps, the Chinese government said it wasn’t happening.

Two months later the government partially acknowledged the program, saying it was giving minor criminals an opportunity to change their ways by learning new skills at “boarding schools.” Then early this month, China’s vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng, dismissed the criticisms of the country’s human rights record as politically motivated, and described the detention centers as educational facilities where “trainees” formerly “controlled by extremist ideology” were learning new ways.

No, it’s not. What the Chinese government appears to be doing is reprising one of the dark chapters of the Mao Tse-tung years by reportedly forcing dissidents, or those considered to be potential dissidents, into concentration camps and subjecting them to brainwashing and, according to some former detainees, torture. Those arrested are held incommunicado, and families often can only guess that relatives they suddenly can’t find have been snatched by the police. Authorities also reportedly have been sweeping up and detaining the Chinese-based relatives of Uighurs who have criticized the government from abroad. That is an especially atrocious practice that must come to an end. But how to force China’s hand on an issue its leaders no doubt view as a purely internal matter is the hard part.

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has solidified his control over the Communist Party and thus the central government. The government has turned universities into “party strongholds” where it uses surveillance and undercover agents to ferret out those who stray from party orthodoxy. It has also jailed pro-democracy activists as well as some of the human rights lawyers who rose to represent them, and cracked down on some religious practices.

It’s true that some Uighur separatists have carried out sporadic terrorist attacks. But experts in the region report no serious, concerted independence movement, and the levels of attacks, while a concern to the Chinese government, do not merit such an atrocious and overwhelming violation of human rights.

The world’s failure to find a strategy to counter China’s human rights transgressions is not Trump’s fault. President Obama similarly had trouble finding a pressure point to change the behavior of an economic giant without damaging global trade. But it must be done. When government repression occurs without consequence, the result is more repression. That is the path back to a disastrous past that the world should work hard not to relive.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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