China was the gift that kept on giving. What was there not to like about a country that was bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the global consumer market? Certain human rights indiscretions might need to be mentioned, ever so politely, but Western governments, policy makers and business leaders saw China more as partner than adversary.
In the last couple of years, the penny has dropped. Under Xi Jinping China has become not just a strategical rival but also a dangerous one that tramples on international norms. Politicians now habitually call for a tougher line. Three factors, however, work against that.
The first is raw fear of China’s power. The second are economist interests. Why close down markets when you don’t have to? Business, after all, is business. The third is the most intractable. On a number of factors, it isn’t clear what can be done to counter Xi’s unswerving confidence.
This summer’s crackdown on Hong Kong was seen as the final proof, if it was needed, of his intentions. The National Security Law is one of the most sweeping infringements on basic rights to have been enacted anywhere recently in the modern world – and on the territory that was supposed to be a haven, at least for the next two decades.
Yet that pales into insignificance when compared to the treatment of the 11 million Uighurs in the north-western region of Xinjiang. For centuries, this ancient Silk Road trading post, at the crossroads of China and Central Asia, has been the homeland of this distinct Turkic ethnic group with their own Islamic culture and tradition. This is no fringe part of China. It covers a sixth of the total landmass, borders eight countries and contains the largest coal and natural gas reserves. Most importantly it is an important hub in China’s Belt and Road initiative, its hugely ambitious network of trade routes linking it to Europe and beyond.
Xinjiang has always been culturally different, politically distant and strategically important. That is why Xi was determined to put it under total control. Shortly after he visited in 2014 the oppression began in earnest (it had begun much earlier, but not with this intensity). In a speech, he called for the tools of “dictatorship” to be used to “eliminate extremism”.
Since then the population has been subjected to systematic religious and ethnic persecution, with more than one million held in a vast network of up to 400 high-security detention camps. Satellite imagery and testimonies from escaped detainees describe men being blindfolded and shackled and sometimes tortured. Women have spoken of being sterilised, forced to undergo abortions or sexually abused. Nobody sent to the camps is charged with a crime; nor do they have any legal recourse to challenge their fate.
Having initially denied the existence of these camps, China took to describing them as “vocational education centres” where the population go to be re-educated “voluntarily” away from “religious extremism” and into loyal mainstream society.
They are required to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party. Children of those detained are sent to state-run orphanages, from which they emerged brainwashed.
The official Chinese line is that “terrorists, separatists and religious extremists” preach that “religious teachings are superior to state laws, inciting the public to resist learning the standard spoken and written Chinese language, reject modern science and refuse to improve their vocational skills, economic conditions and the ability to better their own lives”.
As a result, “some local people have outdated ideas, they suffer from poor education and employability, low employment rates and incomes and have fallen into long term poverty”. Now the authorities claim that most people have “returned to society”, but this is disputed by relatives of those detained. The issue flits in and out of the public consciousness in the UK and other Western countries. Video – the crucial element in bringing issues to the public’s attention – is incredibly hard to come by. Access for journalists is either denied or controlled to such an extent on the ground that proper investigative reporting is virtually impossible.
Most of the information that does make it into the media comes from the up to 1.5 million Uighurs living abroad. They have to do so anonymously for fear of reprisals against any remaining family or friends back home.
When foreign journalists do make it to Xinjiang they operate under constant surveillance, with a combination of ubiquitous high-tech cameras and security officials following them wherever they go, and then interrogating anyone who been approached by the reporting team.
Almost everyone is too scared to speak. Pretty much any form of activity can land you in trouble and into a camp, such as visiting a Mosque or sending a text containing Koranic verses.
Governments have begun to act, albeit hesitantly. Their room for manoeuvre is limited and is so far focused on economic measures. According to a recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which has had impressive impact around the world, the camps are an integral part of international based in forced labour.
In the US, a number of officials involved in the repression of Uighurs have been put on a blacklist. Congress recently passed a bill banning some imports from Xinjiang. Pressure is growing on international brands to examine their supply chains in the region. US Customs and Border Protection has blocked imports from four companies shipping clothing and other goods. The government is considering further incremental measures under the 1930 Tariff Act, which prohibits imports produced with prison or slave labour to ensure fair competition with US. Under the Obama administration, enforcement was stepped up.
This is an area where public activism could have an effect. In late July an international coalition of more than 250 organisations called on “leading brands and retailers to ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from the pervasive and extensive forced labour of the Uighur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples”.
In response, Adidas and Lacoste agreed to cut ties with implicated suppliers and subcontractors. The EU is moving in a similar direction of trade restrictions, although gaining import data on the exact source of materials from China has proven difficult.
In the UK, a cross-party group of MPs is seeking to intervene right where it matters, in a possible post-Brexit trade deal with China. Under the proposals, campaigners would for the first time be able to seek redress in British courts for cases of alleged genocide. A new clause, allowing for a high court judge to make a pre-determination on serious human rights abuse, would complicate the government’s plan to sign continuity trade agreements with countries that the EU already has agreements with.
The EU has had a trade agreement with China dating back 10 years, and the prospect of granting an automatic legal move against Beijing is alarming ministers. The amendment is very unlikely to prevail, but it will make a point.
Remarkably, Muslim countries have said next to nothing. Turkey has only recently raised questions. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have praised China’s “remarkable achievements” in counterterrorism in Xinjiang. Trade and security interests, it seems, will always win out.
The overall atmosphere has changed, though. Europe and the US are developing tougher and more coordinated approaches to China, as part of a broader policy shift in the Indo-Pacific region. The days of ingratiation may be over but that may be too late to save the last vestiges of autonomy or dignity for the Uighurs.