THE recent revelations of China’s use of forced labour in the country’s Xinjiang province are another addition to the litany of the state’s human rights violations.
The well-documented persecution of Uyghur Muslims through detention and re-education in an effort to decimate and assimilate their entire culture now has the added aspect of being integrated into the global economy – a fact that can be considered a microcosm of the west’s problematic relationship with modern China.
Xinjiang province, an enormous region of Western China home to most of the Uyghur population, produces an astonishing one-fifth of the world’s cotton. Of its 21 million-strong populace, over a million are thought to be interned in detention centres.
China’s rationale for doing so was to combat the threat of separatist radicalisation within a recalcitrant Muslim population and, more broadly, to transform this ancient culture that lies within China to become fully Chinese.
As the evidence of the plight of the Uyghurs mounted, many in Western countries condemned China’s actions, though no government was willing to risk a full-on confrontation with Beijing over the issue.
Now, as with almost everything in modern China, it is part of the country’s business.
Not content to merely indoctrinate its captive Uyghurs, China has been putting them to work en masse.
Through the state’s coercive transfer policies, an estimated 570,000 have been made to pick cotton by hand with very little pay. Additionally, satellite imagery has revealed factories built adjacent to detention centres: effectively integrating indoctrination and labour into a single program.
Both Western governments and their citizens have faced for many years the dilemma of criticising China’s blatant violations of human rights while relying on the country for trade.
The use of forced labour in textiles makes this issue more direct; how can such practices be criticised by a country if they directly benefit from its use?
In the UK, businesses have been urged to avoid using cotton produced in Xinjiang, but the nature of global trade makes it difficult to be sure it isn’t entering the supply chain elsewhere, and China is never short of customers.
Premier Xi Jinping has made no secret about his desire for China to become the world’s dominant power, and having consolidated his authority domestically he feels increasingly confident in facing down western liberal democracies.
When Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in China earlier this year, Beijing responded furiously by slapping the tariffs on the country’s goods. The incident has sparked a trade war and soured relations between Australia and its biggest trading partner. The message was clear: you need China more than China needs you.
It is likely that such aggressive responses will become more common as China reacts to resistance and criticism on the international stage.
Boris Johnson has departed from the attitude of his predecessors to take a tougher line on China, reversing a decision to include Huawei in the UK’s new 5G network for fear of the Chinese state’s access to British communications.
The Prime Minister somewhat tempered his stance on China, however, after the Covid crisis revealed the extent of the UK’s reliance on Chinese imports: the majority of Britain’s PPE came from China, some 22 million units.
With the end of the Brexit transition period looming, the UK will increasingly look to international imports, which will inevitably involve China. The UK is unlikely to back up its dissatisfaction with China’s actions in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims with action for fear of serious reprisals.
This captures the dilemma that western countries will doubtless be confronted by in the coming years. Continued trade constitutes a tacit endorsement of the Chinese state.
China’s relationship with the West has grown more confrontational during the Trump administration in the US and while incoming President Joe Biden will end the USA’s four years of isolationism, US-Sino relations will remain strained.
The West has in 2020 woken up to the reality of China and its willingness to exert its will without compromise. Relations between the two cannot return to what they have been for most of the 21st century, but if western countries really want to stand up for human rights the question of how they disentangle themselves from China’s economic powerhouse is not one which is easily answered. Not least due to pressure from businesses within their own borders desperate for the status quo with China to be maintained.
The tainted cotton of Xinjiang represents a crisis that will shape global politics for years to come.
Is the West willing to risk the enormous benefits of trading with China to stand up for the principles it ostensibly espouses? Xi’s China will grow in power and ambition either way, the question is whether it will do so on its own terms.
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