Current Affairs Opinion

The Mask Is Falling: Western-Chinese Sanctions and the Post-COVID Order

It has been three and a half years since Human Rights Watch first warned about the mass detentions of Chinese Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But finally, Western nations are sanctioning some of the perpetrators of a crime that is in breach of every article of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

On 22 March, the US, Canada, UK and the EU took joint action to implement sanctions on senior officials complicit in China’s mass internment of the Uyghurs. The sanctions (apart from the EU’s) reached all the way up to Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, showing a new resolve among the Western nations to implicate not just junior functionaries in the Xinjiang genocide, but senior Party officials as well. In return, China imposed retaliatory sanctions on 10 UK organisations and individuals. These have resulted in travel restrictions for those notables into China and expropriation of any financial assets registered there.

But they have been tit-for-tat, showing how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to avoid escalating the matter too far. Chinese sanctions have notably avoided targeting any individuals within the Biden Administration or Boris Johnson’s cabinet, indicating a desire to limit this war of sanctions to private individuals rather than national leaders or companies. The Chinese government’s limited application of individual sanctions suggests it does not want to provoke a Western escalation, but at the same time defying the West on the international stage will doubtlessly play well with a Chinese home audience. The dominating narrative there seems to be that Western sanctions were misplaced from the beginning since there is no genocide in Xinjiang, and claims to the contrary are attempts to undermine China’s international reputation and cotton exports. Yang Xiaoguang, the second most senior Chinese diplomat in the UK, has tapped into this language of defiance to the West. ‘Today’s world is not the world of 140 years ago. The Chinese people will not be bullied.’

The other prong of the CCP’s response to Western sanctions has been to lash out at Western companies commenting unfavourably on Xinjiang. These brands have grown to encompass H&M, Nike, Adidas and Burberry among others. A wholesale boycott of H&M by Chinese consumers was suddenly sparked by a Communist Youth League social media campaign that dredged up an old H&M tweet stating concern over reports that Uyghur forced labour was being used to harvest Xinjiang cotton. Criticism has largely entailed nationalistic excoriations of Western companies’ slander about Xinjiang and their meddling in Chinese affairs. Since then, the aforementioned brands have been removed from Huawei’s app store and had shops erased from electronic maps. Just days ago, Chinese landlords began physically shutting down H&M stores. It is uncertain whether this was at the behest of Chinese authorities, or on their own initiative.

However, similar to the individual sanctions on Western critics, these measures are more likely to be temporary. They are more the product of celebrity-endorsed social media storms encouraged by the CCP rather than permanent policy change. The government’s goal is likely not to make a genuine stand but instead to encourage the critical companies to return to the fold, and quickly. While H&M was hit particularly hard, Nike and Adidas received gentler treatment. Their accounts on WeChat, Weibo, and on the Apple App Store remained online as of Monday morning.

It would be in the CCP’s best interests to keep the flow of Western goods into the market unrestricted: both to satisfy Chinese consumers and maintain influence in the West by buying up its exports. The CCP has only benefited from the last few decades of globalisation and the growth it has brought to the Chinese economy. These measures are instead meant to teach the upstarts the folly of picking fights with the CCP. They offer a way to control how globalisation occurs in China, not a barrier to it.

Many Western brands have fallen into line. The behaviour of Hugo Boss has been remarkably craven. Having stated in September 2020 that its suppliers had to prove they do not use Xinjiang cotton, on 24 March, the German company made a volte face and informed its customers that of course it uses Xinjiang cotton and does not plan to stop any time soon. The coverage given to companies attempting to please both sides potentially ignores a “silent majority” that have made no statement on the issue of Xinjiang and have continued to purchase its cotton as per usual.

It is unsurprising that some companies have chosen to do this. It makes economic sense for these companies to cave to the demands of the Chinese government given the size of the Chinese market. If we wish to see a real change in the way Western commerce approaches the crimes of the CCP, a grassroots campaign should be brought to bear against the companies that continue to profit from brutal repression and forced labour. The CCP is forcing Western companies to make a choice: on the one hand, they can voice support their own countries’ liberal values, but lose access to the Chinese market. On the other, they can remain silent, continue to use the products of Chinese repression in their supply chains, and reap the profits from good relations with the CCP. Some are trying as best they can to choose both of these. It should instead be made clear to Western companies that using the products of Chinese repression in their supply chains will have serious repercussions in their home countries.

Currently, there is little incentive to make this choice since one side in this tug-of-war is playing the game much more half-heartedly than the other. Western nations have a poor record in decisively confronting Chinese breaches of human rights and international law. The UK is absolutely complicit in this. The latest of iteration of craven deference to Chinese international interests has been the Johnson government’s refusal to admit Lord Alton’s genocide bill to a vote in the Commons. The bill would give MPs a vote on whether to declare the detention of Uyghurs to be a genocide, instead of leaving it to the international courts where China has already vetoed such a decision. UK strategy remains ambiguous on China, reflected in the recent Integrated Review. While advocating openness to Chinese trade and investment, it also concludes that China represents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.

The Review was more straightforward on the CCP’s human rights abuses, saying that the UK will ‘not hesitate’ to stand up for British values and interests where they are threatened. One would think halting genocide would fall within this category, but towards Xinjiang the greatest extent of British advocacy would be merely assuring that British companies do not profit from Uyghur forced labour. This is a derisively low bar for a “Global Britain” dedicated to actively promoting and defending democratic values worldwide. It will show Johnson’s Britain to be a subordinate and second order power kowtowing to the market of its greatest global rival. Continuing down the path set out in the Integrated Review will mean Global Britain trips at the first hurdle.

The CCP’s mask of international credibility and innocence of the crimes of which it is accused is falling. China no longer denies the existence of the Uyghur internment camps, and uses sanctions as a means of silencing international critics or bringing wayward partners back into line. This is now done openly and unashamedly, and is a symptom of China’s growing confidence in pushing its weight around on the world stage. Instead of relying on claims of innocence, the CCP now operates the levers of political and economic coercion to stop the narrative escaping its direct control. As a result, the BBC’s China correspondent, John Sudworth, has fled from Beijing to Taiwan with his family. This follows years of sustained surveillance and threats from Chinese authorities. Sudworth and his family were even followed through airport arrivals and check-in by plainclothes police officers.

That the CCP expects so little in terms of pushback from Western nations gives it greater confidence in throwing its weight around on the world stage. As a country which feels like it has much to prove, it will overstep, as it has in recent months. This gives Western nations an opportunity to clarify their position towards Chinese abuses. Sanctions extended to even higher-level CCP officials in Beijing who have authorised the attempted erasure of the Uyghurs could represent the beginning of a more concerted and organised campaign of opposition to Chinese abuses.

The Chinese boycott against H&M has been so successful because it has been organised and promoted widely within society including by major Chinese celebrities. Britain is a free country – cohesion will not be enforced by a central government. It can only come from grassroots, societal change in attitudes towards how Chinese goods and investment feature in the British economy. It is the buying power derived from this after all which gives the CCP the influence it needs to silence condemnation of its human rights abuses when it so chooses. We, as citizens of a democracy, all have a responsibility on the extent to which the economic power of an authoritarian dictatorship influences what happens within our own borders. If this influence is in any doubt, turn to the recent decision of the Essex Court Chambers to distance itself from its own lawyers’ legal opinion that the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide after the body was threatened with Chinese sanctions.

Boris Johnson has now stated his support for those sanctioned by China. Elsewhere, the Biden Administration has just recently formalised its genocide declaration against the CCP. Though encouraging, efforts to address the CCP’s malign influence cannot cease there. As Britain emerges from COVID-19, it is the CCP’s mask that is falling. Its true face is an ugly one. It is up to us all to see that – and, more importantly, to act on it.

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