The United Nations has cited harrowing reports about Uighur detention centers in China. Photo: Twitter
An undated file photo of Uighurs being held at a 'vocational training' center in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Twitter

Last Thursday, US lawmakers reintroduced legislation that could sanction China for rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang, where more than a million people are believed to have been held in internment camps over the past two years.

The bipartisan “Uighur Human Rights Policy Act” put forward by Senators Marco Rubio (Republican from Florida) and Bob Menendez (Democrat from New Jersey) would dedicate resources from the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and intelligence agencies to document Uighur abuse in Xinjiang as well as Beijing’s intimidation of Uighur US citizens and residents on American soil.

The Chinese have protested that re-education camps are necessary measures in face of terrorism and threats to their national security, accused Washington of meddling in their domestic affairs, and threatened retaliation should the US proceed with sanctions.

Interestingly, the Chinese “security” argument is reminiscent of the US “security” rationale for Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, and raises the age-old question: How does a government balance protection of human rights while safeguarding national security in times of war?

This is especially important in an era when the US is still engaged in the “global war on terror” and faced Islamophobia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with increasing trade war and military competition in Sinophobia since the election of President Donald Trump.

Just as Washington rounded up Japanese-Americans after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and conducted racial profiling of Muslim Americans after 9/11, should a conflict break out between the US and China in the Pacific, would Chinese-Americans – similar to Uighurs in Xinjiang – be subject to surveillance and incarceration by the US government in the name of national security?

Perhaps by revisiting the past and returning to places that have been instrumental in forming the American story, this could provide a better understanding of these complex issues, and help shape a better future for both the US and China.

National security and Japanese-Americans

Manzanar, located about 220 miles north of Los Angeles, is most widely known as one of 10 internment camps from where more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Source: Wikipedia, National Park Service

It became known in popular culture by the movie Farewell to Manzanar directed by John Korty and aired on March 11, 1976, on the US National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network.

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After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government moved swiftly to solve the “Japanese Problem” on the west coast. FBI agents arrested selected “enemy” aliens including more than 5,500 Issei (first generation) men, and on February 19, 1942, president Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were Nisei (second generation) native-born US citizens, and move them to military enclosures described by various terms from “reception centers” and “relocation centers” to “internment camps” and “concentration camps.”

Understandably, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were widespread hysteria and prejudice against Japanese-Americans as a potential fifth column. For example, Lieutenant-General John DeWitt, who was head of the Western Defense Command, questioned Japanese-American loyalty, and the Joint Immigration Committee of the California legislature sent a manifesto to newspapers in the state stating that “the ethnic Japanese” were “totally unassimilable.”

This subsequently gained traction with the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West – a fraternal organization dedicated to preserving California’s history – and the California Department of the American Legion, which demanded that all Japanese with dual citizenship be placed in the internment camps.

On March 3, 1942, General Dewitt further issued the Civilians Exclusion Order No 32 that individuals with Japanese ancestry could be sent to the camps, which meant the inclusion of anyone with as little as one-sixth Japanese blood, but also many Korean-Americans and Taiwanese were classified as ethnically Japanese because their homelands were both Japanese colonies at the time.

The camps eventually closed in 1945 when World War II came to an end. However, controversy over the tradeoff between human rights and national security remains.

National security, terrorism, and human rights

In 1980, because of mounting domestic criticism that wartime incarceration of Japanese-Americans was unjust and a violation of human rights, president Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to open an investigation. The commission’s report found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty and recommended paying reparations to the internees, which president Ronald Reagan signed into law as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

However, others argue that wartime sacrifices on human rights are justified in defense of national security, and internment is necessary in an age of terrorism. In 2004, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin published a book titled In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror, reacting at the time to what she described as the “constant alarmism from Bush-bashers who argue that every counter-terror measure in America is tantamount to the internment.”

Other scholars such as Daniel Pipes, another conservative commentator and president of the Middle East Forum, has defended Malkin and suggested that Japanese-American internment was “a good idea” that offers “lessons for today.” As such, one ponders whether the Chinese might have read Malkin’s book and taken lessons from it to apply to Xinjiang today, or in the scenario of a Sino-US military conflict in the Pacific, is there a risk Chinese-Americans in California could face lessons learned for a Chinese “Manzanar”?

These are uncomfortable questions that are not easy to answer, but for now Washington appears to place more weight on human rights. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 admitted that internment camps were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and the US government ultimately disbursed more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3.4 billion in 2019) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-Americans who had had been interned and their heirs.

As for Manzanar, today it is preserved as a national historic site, and perhaps stands as “lessons for today” on the delicate relationship between human rights and national security, whether for the Kurds in Turkey, Uighurs in China, Asians in America, or other minorities elsewhere in the world.

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Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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