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Is International Pressure Coalescing on China’s Xinjiang Policy?

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Is International Pressure Coalescing on China’s Xinjiang Policy?

Separate moves from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. show signs of growing backlash to China’s human rights abuses.

Is International Pressure Coalescing on China’s Xinjiang Policy?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Harrowing reports of the treatment of Uyghurs held in China’s internment camps in Xinjiang continue to surface. As more information has emerged over the past several years, states, particularly in the West, have publicly condemned Beijing’s actions, with some kickstarting a panoply of initiatives intended to hold Chinese authorities accountable.

Most recently, Canada’s House of Commons overwhelmingly voted to declare China’s treatment of the Muslim minority – including forced detention in camps and forced sterilizations – as genocide. The motion passed 266 to 0 with the support of all opposition parties. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the majority of his cabinet members abstained, the vote was symbolically significant. It makes Canada the second country after the United States to label China’s actions as genocide.

Unsurprisingly, the move triggered a sharp response from Beijing with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling the vote a “deliberate smear.” He added, “Some people in Canada should abandon their anti-China bias, step outside from the dark room into the sunlight, look at China in an objective and fair way, rather than indulge in the obsolete mentality of ideological confrontation.”

The Canadian vote came as U.S. President Joe Biden hosted a virtual meeting with Trudeau, his first bilateral summit with a foreign leader since taking office. In their joint press statement, Biden communicated that the two leaders would coordinate their “approaches to better compete with China and to counter threats” to shared interests and values. Biden also voiced support for working together to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians detained in China, saying, “Human beings are not bartering chips.”

The U.S. State Department designated China’s actions against Uyghurs and other Muslims as genocide on the final day of Mike Pompeo’s tenure as secretary of state in January, though the Trump administration had taken, at best, an inconsistent approach toward human rights and China during its four years. Still, the designation aligned with a position previously shared by a Biden administration spokesperson during the summer of the presidential campaign. (The State Department under current Secretary Antony Blinken is said to be reviewing the designation.) Since taking office, Biden has warned of “repercussions” for human rights abuses in China’s far western region, but beyond rhetorically putting Beijing on alert, no additional policy measures have followed. (The U.S. Department of Homeland Security imposed a ban on all cotton and cotton products from a major Xinjiang firm in December 2020 and lawmakers have put forward legislation targeting forced labor).

In both the U.S. and abroad, lawmakers are behind the most vocal calls for holding Beijing accountable on its Xinjiang policy. Members of the European Parliament are pushing back on the investment pact struck between the European Commission and Beijing late last year, calling on China to sign on to conventions on forced labor under the International Labor Organization before voting to ratify the deal.

U.S. Congressman John Katko (R-NY), the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, called on the U.S. president to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics to be hosted in Beijing. Similar calls have been made by legislators elsewhere, including the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

In the United Kingdom, lawmakers proposed a “genocide amendment” to a trade bill that would have empowered domestic courts to make preliminary rulings on whether genocide was occurring in another state. In turn, the U.K. government would have been required to reconsider trade deals with any countries committing genocide. In January, the measure was narrowly defeated in a 319-308 vote in Parliament. Although the amendment did not specifically target China, it was clearly drafted with China’s actions in Xinjiang in mind.

More recently, the U.K. is leading a United Nations effort seeking access to the autonomous region to investigate reports of abuses. During an address to the Human Rights Council, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale. The reported abuses — which include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization of women — are extreme and they are extensive.” An independent U.K. tribunal is also slated to hold its first public hearings on genocide accusations against China in May.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has been criticized for its reluctance to take punitive action against China. Yet, Japanese businesses are reportedly taking action in response to human rights violations in Xinjiang. According to a recent Kyodo News investigation, 12 major Japanese firms, including Toshiba Corp., Sony Corp., Hitachi Ltd., and Fast Retailing Co., which operates the clothing brand Uniqlo, are said to be ceasing or considering ceasing business deals with Chinese partners found to be using forced labor in Xinjiang.

Although this amalgam of steps does not appear to necessarily be coordinated, the developments reflect a willingness by G-7 members to ratchet up pressure that many organizations and activists have long been calling for. Whether this added pressure ultimately alters Beijing’s calculus, however, is another matter entirely.