(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senator Marco Rubio says business-as-usual with Beijing is “not an option”

In an exclusive interview with Kapil Komireddi, the US senator condemns the Communist Party of China as a “genocidal regime” which poses “the greatest threat” to international peace and security

A Tibetan exile in India recently described Marco Rubio to me as the “most unwavering friend” in America to China’s “neglected victims”. That view was echoed by a Uyghur activist based in Germany. For all the liberal contumely he provokes at home, Rubio’s willingness to sail against the liberal consensus on China when it was deeply unprofitable and unfashionable has earned him genuinely grateful admirers around the world. When lavishing praise on the “peaceful rise” of China was the touchstone of political sophistication in Washington, Rubio was one of a handful of high-profile politicians who spoke with passion about the casualties of China’s rise.

And when politicians accustomed to brandishing their bravery by hectoring the Middle East’s blasted little tyrannies began cowering before China, Rubio again distinguished himself by granting audience to Tibetans and crafting legislation to aid Beijing’s victims. If passed, the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act cosponsored by Rubio—who nearly stole the Republican nomination for the presidency from Donald Trump in 2016—would impose the presumption that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labour and, unless certified otherwise by a competent body, bar their entry into the United States.

Multibillion-dollar corporations are not happy. Nor, of course, is the Communist Party of China, which targeted Rubio with sanctions in August. But, after years of waging a largely solitary battle in Washington for some of the most persecuted people on earth, what appears to worry him more now is the revival of the wisdom that not so long ago abetted the persecution by passing off cooperation with the persecutors as a geopolitical virtue.

But Rubio is determined, as he explained in an interview with me for The Critic, to withstand any effort to return to business-as-usual with the “genocidal regime” he calls the “greatest threat to international peace”. Reaffirming his commitment to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Rubio also urged the Tibetan community in India never to relinquish their peaceful traditions and vowed, in turn, to continue his own fight for a “future where the Tibetan people can live freely in their homeland”.

The transcript has been slightly edited.

Kapil Komireddi: Senator—you have been one of the most consistent American advocates for the victims of the Communist Party of China. Uyghur and Tibetan exiles would appreciate a direct answer. Do you, personally, consider what is happening in Xinjiang—detention, forced labour, forced sterilisation—to be genocide. And if you do, what do you believe ought to be the response of the United States and the wider democratic world?

‘We must remain vigilant as Beijing continues to try to worm its way into other parts of our society’

Marco Rubio: Yes. The atrocities against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, which have been widely documented, absolutely meet the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity. Now that we’ve established that the evidence available supports this and there is bipartisan consensus, we must do all we can to lead the free world in pressing for justice and accountability. This means continuing to highlight the stories of those who’ve experienced Beijing’s evil acts first hand, halt all goods made with Uyghur forced labour entering the US, and impose costs on CPC officials for the abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, and for crushing basic freedoms in Hong Kong.

KK:  You have been one of a handful of high-profile American politicians to speak up for Tibet. The levels of repression there are often beyond description. It’s depressing to note that Tibetans, who have never resorted to violence, are ignored, while “legitimate causes” are endlessly unearthed for movements that resort to violence. The upshot of this neglect of Tibet is that many young Tibetans in exile, especially in India, now wonder if non-violence will ever yield anything. Some ask if it’s not time to turn violence. What do you say to these people whose hopes are fading?

MR: Tibetans’ refusal to resort to violence in the face of unspeakable acts of repression is extraordinary. I believe it stems from their reverence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has consistently condemned violence as a solution. I would encourage Tibetans to remain steadfast in their faith and the wisdom of their tradition. We will continue to work towards a future where the Tibetan people can live freely in their homeland without fear of persecution from a brutal communist regime that seeks to destroy them.

KK: The wisdom that animated the partnership with China was that cooperation with Beijing would make China more liberal. The opposite has happened. It is the West that has altered its behaviour to propitiate China, which has become politically more illiberal. Hollywood censors its films to appease China, and publishers and authors accept cuts to their work to gain access to the Chinese market. Do you worry that the thinking that brought us to this point is fashionable again?

‘China’s decision to sanction me is a badge of honour’

MR: So many of our ongoing political crises—a diminished industrial base, fewer good jobs for working Americans, and even our vulnerability to this pandemic—derive from our falling prey to that misconception the first time around. We cannot repeat it. Hollywood’s and corporate media’s desire to placate the CPC have already led to extensive self-censorship in America—everything from Taiwanese flags to Tibetan characters. We must remain vigilant as Beijing continues to try to worm its way into other parts of our society. It’s not only our moral duty, but also in our national security interest to abandon the failed policy of engagement and remain firm in our condemnation of China’s crackdown on human rights, free speech, and dissent.

KK: A few months ago, the CEO of Volkswagen in China said that he could not be 100 per cent certain that there was no forced labour at his plant in Xinjiang—and yet refused to stop production there. This squalid story nicely illustrates, I think, the pattern of Western companies’ dealings with China since the 1990s: profit at the expense of human dignity. How do you stop Western corporations from perpetuating this? Do you create incentives for them to quit while it remains under the thump of the CPC, or do you penalise them for choosing to do business in China? Is this something you think about?

MR: It’s terrible that some firms choose to profit from goods tainted with the forced labour of Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang. I remain committed to advancing legislative efforts, such as my bicameral and bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (S.3471), which would ensure that goods made with forced labour do not enter the homes of Americans and would require corporations seeking to import goods from Xinjiang to provide proof of that.

KK: There is some concern that the new administration in Washington is going to return to business-as-usual with Beijing. Tibetans, especially, express the fear that the old habit of fabricating rationales for turning a blind eye to China’s conduct will be resuscitated. Do you worry about this? And will you assure those worried that you will vigilantly oppose a return the old ways of doing things?

MR: Whatever the plans of the administration, I know this: returning to business-as-usual with Beijing is not an option. The Communist Party of China is a genocidal regime bent on supplanting the United States’ role in the world and poses the greatest threat to international peace and security. I will continue to press the administration to ensure they fully grasp this threat and condemn any measure it makes that seeks to turn a blind eye to China’s plainly visible track record of repression and abuse.

KK: You are the target of sanctions by the Communist Party of China. Has this had any material effect?

MR: Quite frankly, China’s decision to sanction me is a badge of honour. While I had zero plans of travelling to China, the fact that the Chinese government and the Communist Party felt threatened by my work to put an end to their horrific human rights abuses reaffirms that we are on the right side of history.

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