WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump said he resisted punishing China for its mass internment of ethnic Uighurs last year for fear of jeopardising trade talks with Beijing, a blunt admission of his transactional approach to human rights and willingness to subordinate other US policy priorities to a potential trade deal he considers vital to his re-election.
In an interview with Axios, published on Sunday, Mr Trump was asked why he had not approved a Treasury Department plan in late 2018 to impose sanctions on Chinese government officials who were connected to the severe crackdown on China’s Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
“Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal,” Mr Trump said. “And when you’re in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden, you start throwing additional sanctions on – we’ve done a lot,” he added. “I put tariffs on China, which are far worse than any sanction you can think of.”
Mr Trump has taken a selective approach to human rights as president, imposing sanctions over rights abuses in countries he aims to intimidate, such as Iran and Venezuela, while turning a largely blind eye when it comes to an ally like Saudi Arabia, or in the case of China, with which he hopes to strike a trade deal.
After he began to pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea, Mr Trump abruptly dropped his criticisms of that country’s infamous human rights abuses.
His comment to Axios, part of an interview he gave on Friday, appeared to support the account of his former national security adviser John Bolton, who writes in a new book that Mr Trump had asked him in December 2018 why administration officials were considering sanctions on Chinese officials over their treatment of the Uighurs.
Mr Trump never approved the idea, and the issue was kept out of the trade talks entirely.
And during a meeting several months later with China’s President Xi Jinping, Mr Bolton writes in his book that “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do”.
US officials and human rights groups say that China has placed up to one million Uighurs in indoctrination camps in the country’s north-western Xinjiang region and turned the area into a dystopian surveillance state.
Beijing has claimed that its policies are aimed at curbing extremism and that people in the camps, which it calls vocational training centres, are there voluntarily.
However, ample evidence, including leaked Chinese government documents, proves otherwise, and former detainees have alleged rape, medical experiments and torture.
Chinese officials have challenged foreign criticism of their treatment of Uighurs as unacceptable interference in the country’s internal affairs.
They lashed out at the United States last week after Mr Trump signed legislation granting him new powers to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the round-up of Uighurs.
Congress passed that measure this spring, in large part to pressure Mr Trump after he failed to take unilateral action already within his power.