Casper Wits is a lecturer in East Asian studies at Leiden University.
A devastating picture has emerged from recently leaked Xinjiang police files – one that should ultimately lead to a European debate about our own complicity in human rights abuses in China.
The European Union has already learned some painful lessons through the war in Ukraine, which should now be applied to the biggest systemic challenge on the axis of authoritarian expansionism – China. The economic entanglement with Russia and China has seriously damaged the bloc’s strategic position and, above all, it has resulted in a reluctance to defend and uphold our values.
In any future EU debate on Russia, the horrors of Bucha and Mariupol will be foremost in our minds. Likewise, human rights abuses in China and, urgently, the existential plight of the Uyghurs should inform the debate about our relationship with the country and our economic dependence on it.
The decades-long process of continued economic entanglement with China has always been presented as a win-win situation: we would benefit economically, while bringing about change in China, because our influence would lead to political liberalization there. .
But in reality, European leaders like former German Chancellor Angela Merkel have structurally downplayed any concerns about Beijing’s violation of human rights and values in the name of short-term profit, and the resulting economic interdependence. now severely limits our room for maneuver as assertive China expands its global influence.
An example of how the intertwining of our economies and supply chains has made us complicit in China’s human rights abuses is that roughly one in five cotton products worldwide now contain “Xinjiang cotton” – produced by forced labor and named after the region.
Although the European Commission still seems to lack a sense of urgency when it comes to Uyghur forced labor, more and more European governments and companies are making genuine efforts to tackle this problem. And the debate is now particularly urgent because of China’s efforts to structurally undermine the international human rights system through its influence in the UN Human Rights Council, for example. Even more, after the abdication of leadership on this issue by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, during her recent visit to China.
But the biggest problem is that it’s still a pretty isolated problem that we can tackle by cleaning up supply chains and putting a bit more emphasis on human rights in our policy foreign. This position is untenable, however, as illustrated by recent news that even companies that have made strenuous efforts to wean themselves off the use of Uyghur forced labor – such as Puma, Adidas and Hugo Boss – were still using Xinjiang. cotton in their products.
As such, the plight of the Uyghurs cannot be isolated from the nature of China’s rise as a whole – nor can it be seen as separate from our past choices facilitating Chinese economic expansion and tolerating human rights violations which are often the direct result.
Indeed, the precarious situation of the Uyghurs is directly linked to the central position of the province of Xinjiang in China’s global economic strategy – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This strategy focuses on six corridors that economically link China to the rest of the Eurasian continent, and no less than three of them pass through Xinjiang. The brutal subjugation of the Uighurs is therefore at the heart of China’s rise and its industrial policy, and it is a fact that even strong action against forced labor will not change.
Since 2017, it has been clear that the region is seen by the Chinese government as a central BRI hub, with a massive $66 billion investment in local infrastructure. It is no coincidence that this is also the year the campaign of mass internment and cultural extermination of the Uyghurs began, as the pacification of the region – a longtime obsession of the Chinese rulers – was considered more urgent than ever.
But much like the barbaric cruelty of Russian troops in Ukraine, China’s cruelty to Uyghurs should be seen as a feature — not a bug.
Like the ruins of Mariupol, the camps in Xinjiang are a harbinger of a future in which we continue to tolerate and facilitate authoritarian expansionism. The struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is painfully visible in the war in Ukraine, and it should also inform our China policy. It’s a struggle that will largely take place at home as we ask ourselves how prepared are we to stand up for our values and at what economic cost?
Basically, it’s about who we want to be.
The fact that a significant number of Europeans still wear clothes containing Xinjiang cotton shows that we are not changing China, but it is changing us.
This is what the debate on China should be about.