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Uyghurs Are Facing Abuse In Camps In China. The U.S. Congress Is Trying To Address It

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The largest coordinated human rights abuse campaign of the 21st century is how Congressman Thomas Suozzi characterizes the Chinese government's treatment of Uyghurs. Over 1 million members of the Muslim minority group are believed to be held in China, often under brutal conditions. Mr. Suozzi, a Democrat, is a co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Uyghur Caucus, which was formed this week, and he joins us now. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS SUOZZI: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: What do you want Americans to know about what's happening to Uyghurs as we speak?

SUOZZI: The American people and the world community need to know that these are crimes against humanity. These are - this is genocide that is taking place in the Xinjiang region - people in forced labor camps, forced sterilization, sexual abuse. It goes on and on.

SIMON: Congressman, I'm sitting here, and I'm looking at pens and paper clips and wires and a clock and my clothes, for that matter, and I'm wondering if a lot of Americans, including me, don't support this with the products we buy.

SUOZZI: You know, we've been through a period of globalization for decades, and it's been an effort to try and find the cheapest products we can anywhere. But in this case, it's even worse. It's cheaper to get products that are made with forced labor - cotton, for example. China's one of the largest producers of cotton in the world. Eighty-four percent of the cotton in China comes from the Xinjiang region where this forced labor is taking place. We have to recognize that we cannot support this type of activity. And when we buy these products, we are supporting them.

SIMON: Would you like to pass legislation to that effect? Is that possible?

SUOZZI: So we've passed legislation in the House in the last term in Congress, but it didn't go anywhere in the Senate, and we've got to do it again. And that legislation would say that anything that comes from this region, there is a presumption that that product was made with forced labor. Now, it's a rebuttable presumption. The companies could say, listen; we can document that this was not made with forced labor. But the way it is now is completely backwards, that, you know, we say we ban goods that are made with forced labor, but it's so hard to prove.

SIMON: What do you say to those Americans who might say, look; this will just make the things we need cost more, and I'm tapped out already?

SUOZZI: I've got to be very frank with you. I've said it before, and it's just too damn bad. We have to do everything we can. And if it costs more for your shirt or your pair of jeans or your phone, I'm sorry - that we cannot support this behavior. And I think that most Americans, most people of goodwill throughout the world would support that philosophy.

SIMON: Mr. Suozzi, I wonder how you respond to what Chinese officials say, that the U.S. has its own long history of racism and bigotry and just doesn't have the moral standing to criticize human rights in China.

SUOZZI: Well, there's no question that America has a checkered history and that we have to constantly try and work to evolve to try and address it. Unfortunately, in China, if you dare say that they're doing something wrong, you end up in jail or worse. I know about families that - you know, here in the United States that try to call their relatives, but they know that every word they speak is being surveilled by the Chinese Communist Party. And they have to be very careful because then their mother or their grandmother will be imprisoned. Their husbands are being put in forced labor camps. Chinese nationals are moving in with their wives. They're trying to erase their culture. They're trying to indoctrinate them. And they're trying to intimidate them. And, you know, they're succeeding to a large extent.

SIMON: Representative Thomas Suozzi of New York, thanks so much for being with us.

SUOZZI: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.