Illustration by Derek Zheng

Protecting the Uyghurs isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good politics.

In a parting shot at Beijing, the outgoing Trump administration formally declared that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang constitutes a genocide. The Biden administration seems to agree. In August, Biden called the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs a “genocide,” and Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, concurred with the Trump administration’s judgment in his recent Senate confirmation hearing. 

It is clear the Uyghurs have suffered unspeakable atrocities. The CCP has, since at least 2017, forcibly detained over one million Uyghurs Muslims and other minorities in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Authorities throw citizens into internment camps for practicing their faith, downloading certain messaging apps, or simply growing long beards. Camp survivors recount torture, rape, and forced sterilization. And reports have uncovered that the CCP ships detainees all across China to perform forced labor.

But condemnations from Washington may do little to help the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that the CCP has targeted. Moreover, the United States’ recent unilateral sanctions on organizations operating in Xinjiang seem not to be changing the CCP’s Uyghur policies.

President Biden can do better. He can take immediate steps that will protect Uyghurs. By executive order, he should grant a path to citizenship for Uyghurs now living in the United States who do not have permanent residency. These Uyghurs, numbering an estimated 1,500 to 5,000, endure threats and abuse from Chinese officials, who worry they might cause trouble by talking to western media. Many would face imprisonment if they went home. Uyghurs returning to China from the United States have been detained before, and many who have spoken out while abroad have watched their families in China disappear.

Biden should also expand Uyghur access to the U.S. Overseas Refugee Program. He can do so by making a presidential determination that Uyghurs constitute a group of “special humanitarian concern,” which would let them apply abroad for U.S. refugee admission. Many of the over one million Uyghurs in the diaspora are in even greater danger than those in the United States: China has forced countries across Asia to repatriate Uyghurs and signed extradition agreements with Turkey and other nations.

These steps could save thousands from torture and abitrary detention, and neither departs from precedent. In 1990, President Bush granted temporary asylum to Chinese students in the United States after the CCP’s brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. And under President Obama, overseas-refugee admissions from countries including Cuba, Honduras, and Iraq surpassed 100,000 annually. (Trump, however, slashed this program by capping 2020 admissions at 15,000.) Moreover, Biden’s leadership could spur the new Congress to act. In 1992, building on Bush’s asylum order, Congress passed the Chinese Student Protection Act, which granted green cards to over 50,000 Chinese students.

These steps could also have a snowball effect internationally. Beijing has launched a campaign of persuasion and intimidation to stifle opposition to its abuses in Xinjiang. A clear signal from Washington would empower countries to speak out against the detentions and protect Uyghurs within their borders.

Protecting the Uyghurs isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good politics. During Trump’s tenure, as his administration started shirking U.S. commitments to international treaties and human rights, the world came to view Chinese leadership more favorably than American leadership for the first time ever. But standing up for the Uyghurs would signal a return to a values-based U.S. foreign policy, and it would help mend relationships with democratic allies strained by Trump’s “America First” model. As Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged, these relationships are crucial if the United States hopes to confront the CCP’s authoritarian-friendly vision for the future.

When it comes to human-rights issues, the Biden administration has its work cut out. Biden must address the Trump administration’s family-separation policies at the southern border, the American military and intelligence services’ compliance with international and U.S. law, and law enforcement’s treatment of Black and brown Americans at home, among a host of other serious concerns. But with two pen strokes, Biden can save thousands from persecution — and in so doing signal America’s recommitment to a freer, religiously tolerant, more democratic future.