BEIJING/Washington – Women in China's system of detention camps for ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in its western region of Xinjiang were subject to rape, sexual abuse and torture, according to a BBC report published Wednesday.
The British broadcaster said on its website that "several former detainees and a guard have told the BBC they experienced or saw evidence of an organized system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture." The allegations could not be independently verified by Reuters.
Beijing strongly denies accusations of abuse in Xinjiang, and has said the complexes it set up in the region provided vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism, and to teach new skills. Those in the facilities had since "graduated," it says.
Asked Wednesday about the BBC report, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said it was "wholly without factual basis" and that the people interviewed by the BBC had been "proved multiple times" to be "actors disseminating false information."
Last year, a report by German researcher Adrian Zenz published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think tank accused China of using forced sterilization, forced abortion and coercive family planning against minority Muslims. China has also said those allegations were groundless and false.
In 2018, an independent U.N. panel said it had received credible reports that at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims had been held in the Xinjiang region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that there must be serious consequences for the atrocities.
"We are deeply disturbed by reports, including first-hand testimony, of systematic rape and sexual abuse against women in internment camps for ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang," a State Department spokeswoman said.
The timing of the revelations was unfortunate for China, casting a pall on its efforts to highlight the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics as it marked on Thursday one year before their scheduled opening. Rights advocacy groups and politicians have called on the International Olympic Committee to move the games elsewhere over its human rights record.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch slammed the IOC, saying its "failure to publicly confront Beijing's serious human rights violations makes a mockery of its own commitments and claims that the Olympics are a 'force for good.'"
U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is signaling it currently has no plans to bar American athletes' participation in the games.
But a group of U.S. Republican senators had introduced a resolution Tuesday with a similar call to move the games, in line with the United States' designation that the Chinese government has perpetrated genocide against Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region. That decision was made in the final days of President Donald Trump's presidency, and was quickly endorsed by the Biden administration, which took office on Jan. 20.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week he backed the designation while favoring cooperation with China on climate change and other issues. Under Trump the U.S. had imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and firms it linked to abuses in Xinjiang, and the Biden administration has made clear it plans to continue a tough approach with Beijing on this and other issues.
The spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department reiterated Washington's position, that China has committed "crimes against humanity and genocide" in Xinjiang and added: "These atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences."
The official said China should allow "immediate and independent investigations by international observers" into the rape allegations "in addition to the other atrocities being committed in Xinjiang."
The official did not specify what the consequences might be but said Washington would speak out jointly with allies to condemn the atrocities and "consider all appropriate tools to promote accountability for those responsible and deter future abuses."
However, the same day at the White House, spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing, "We're not currently talking about changing our posture or our plans as it relates to the Beijing Olympics."
"We consult, of course, closely with allies and partners at all levels to define our common concerns and establish a shared approach," she added, “but there is no discussion underway of a change in our plans from the United States at this point in time.”
Asked repeatedly in recent days whether the Biden administration supported moving the games, both The White House and the State Department have referred reporters to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for further comment.
In a statement, the USOPC has said, "We oppose Games boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues.
"We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and political issues," the statement read.
Biden's White House has not previously suggested publicly that it would oppose China as a host for the games, despite the international condemnation faced by Beijing. The idea of an Olympic boycott is fraught political territory for both the White House and corporate sponsors.
Reuters sought comment from 15 global Olympic corporate sponsors.
Airbnb, Alibaba, Atos, Bridgestone, Dow, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, Toyota and Visa did not respond to requests for comment. General Electric said its contract is ending after the Tokyo Summer Games set for this year after being postponed in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Intel declined to comment. Omega, Coca-Cola and Allianz reiterated their commitment to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
"I think you want to raise the bar really high for Olympic boycotts," an Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "Public signaling sometimes becomes very hard for countries to step back from."
Politicians and activists targeted China with boycott campaigns ahead of its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, but U.S. President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremonies in Beijing.
There has been speculation that the Biden administration's support for the genocide designation could push it to seek allied backing for a boycott in 2022, something a U.S. president has not done since Jimmy Carter blocked American athletes from attending the 1980 Summer Games in the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, some U.S. allies chose to participate, including the U.K. and France. Four years later, in a tit-for-tat response, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Senior IOC member Dick Pound, a Canadian, said he doubted pressure would change the IOC's support for staging the event in Beijing.
"My guess is there will be more voices urging it (a boycott), but I don't think it is going to change the basic IOC view. It's a very complicated and tension filled world and the more doors you can keep open the better," Pound said.
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