Caging kids at the U.S. border is reprehensible. But as first ladies, governors, celebrities, and citizens of all political stripes line up and strike out against the inhumane practice of separating children from parents seeking refuge, everyone should save some ire and outrage for one of the world’s greatest offenders and dissemblers of refugee rights: China.
Despite having signed onto the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, China has gone to incredible lengths to redefine and reclassify foreigners who seek asylum on Chinese territory, allowing an appearance of having received “foreign” refugees. In fact, China is practicing the same type of refugee policy it pursues when it comes to international trade. It is willing to export its massive population at high numbers, send them abroad for education, work, and to establish cultural beachheads and corporate outposts (as with steel), but is unwilling and vehemently opposed to accepting a modicum of duty-free imports or unwashed masses.
The Trump administration must find neither solace nor support for its soulless edict to wrench kids from parents. On this, China should be left to stand apart.
China, unfortunately, is not alone. Russia and Turkey use refugees as weapons, Italy’s new government is stalking them and preparing them for deportation, Hungary makes it clear that they are unwelcome public targets. Increasingly, the rest of the West sees them as an unmanageable burden or parasitic horde who threaten nativist cultures, take jobs, drain welfare, change the national character, overwhelm communities, breed terrorists, and create chaos. Refugees and their children are having a hard time finding a new home.
The Trump policy of separating children from parents is a sin and a stain on American society. It further erodes whatever moral high-ground America continues to hold. Caging kids is a new low, a perverse policy that draws parallels to some of the 20th century’s darkest state actions. There is no credible excuse for this child endangerment and it should stop immediately. Children are the most vulnerable class of humans. They need care, not cruelty. Full stop.
But as the world rightly condemns the Trump administration for both its callous policies and mendacious excuses, it cannot turn a blind eye to the egregious and selfish policies of another great global power. China exploits globalization’s many advantages and privilege but rejects real global responsibility for many of the world’s thorniest problems. The lifeboat may be feeling full in some societies and nationalist leaders are definitely taking political advantage of the moment to capitalize on populist sentiments, but it’s been a few years and several regimes ago since China was a lifeboat to the scads of international migrants seeking safe-harbor and survival.
If anything, China is adding to the problem, aiding and abetting the Myanmar government that persecutes, uproots, rapes, pillages, and murders the Rohingya population, forcing them to flee across land-mined borders into neighboring Bangladesh. Plenty of kids die in that forced migration. Girls are often rounded-up and sexually assaulted. Violence visits them early in their lives and the reward for their forced sexual victimization is either death or a lonely continued struggle for survival in an often parent-less future.
In China, there is both an official and a popular anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment that aligns well with both its support and strategic goals in Myanmar. China as the region’s dominant power not only helps create the conditions for forced migrations from Myanmar, it is setting the terms for the continued permanent internment of populations in North Korea’s gulag-state. President Trump may be feeling warm and fuzzy about Kim Jong-un, but the dictator’s people continue to suffer the predations and depravity of Kim’s totalitarian state. North Koreans regularly risk their lives to escape the heavily fortified border in order to breathe the air of freedom in their Southern sister nation. Few try to cross over into an inhospitable China.
One of China’s evolving arguments for American security guarantees for Kim’s regime is that Beijing is both unwilling and unprepared to accept a flood of North Korean refugees. In fact, it already immediately repatriates those few who manage to get across. China prefers a Trump-brokered Korean peace that includes some Western demilitarization. This would allow President Xi Jinping to increase his country’s own security by growing his border buffer and increasing China’s state security while giving him greater influence and power over the region. Xi would prefer that potential North Korean refugees - resulting from any Pyongyang political opening or border loosening - head towards Seoul instead of China. It is a cynical and self-serving policy that is entirely consistent with China’s geopolitical status and strategy.
My parents were refugees to an America that opened its arms and heart. I am eternally grateful. It pains me to equate any Chinese state policy to my own country’s political behavior. The Trump administration must find neither solace nor support for its soulless edict to wrench kids from parents. On this, China should be left to stand apart.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @KounalakisM.