By Corri Zoli, Director of Research
A new tone on the part of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials is unmistakable. This was evident in the verbal scuffles in Anchorage, AK, over a week ago at the first diplomatic meeting between China and the new Biden Administration. There, human rights and forced labor violations were raised, including with respect to the Uighurs and other Muslim Turkic minorities in Xinxiang, one of the world’s leading cotton producers.
What caught the Biden team off guard was senior CCP diplomat Yang Jiechi’s pointed criticisms of the US’s own record on human rights violations (referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance) and its “long-arm jurisdiction” in foreign interventions across the globe, which had also created instability. A clearly more assertive China made international foreign policy observers around the world take notice when President Xi’s delegation told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “they don’t have the qualification to say they speak to China from a position of strength.”
Beyond the United States, Chinese officials have recently asserted to other nations, international organizations, and now corporations (H&M, Nike, Converse, Under Armour, and others) that the “era of bullying” of China by foreign powers has come to an end. That includes, according to Chinese official statements, the use of sanctions against China (and President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has not yet removed the Trump-era tariffs and sanctions).
Both Biden’s and former president Donald J. Trump’s secretaries of state (Mike Pompeo, officially on his last day in office) have publicly accused China of carrying out a genocide against the Uighur and other minority groups, and Canada and the Netherlands have agreed. A block of 30 countries, including the European Union, which has not imposed sanctions since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown—as well as the UK, US, and Canada—have recently imposed new sanctions on China with those allegations in mind.
In addition to the EU and US coordinated response, today, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Working Group on Business and Human Rights used their mandate to express their own deep concerns that the Chinese government was violating what they see as emerging obligations to follow the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. What appears to have prompted their announcement is increasingly reliable accounts of Uighur treatment (in part from BBC, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Human Rights Watch reporting) and results from the UN Human Rights Working Group’s own investigation into the abuses of Uighurs, which have “tainted” China’s cotton supply chains.
The UN Working Group has reached out to many private businesses in and outside of China who are part of these supply chains involving Xinxiang, as well as 13 other governments that may be implicated in these alleged abuses (and to ensure businesses in their territory respect all human rights throughout their operations). These specific reports, data collection, and outreach efforts are unifying international pressure from many angles to force China to address these severe human rights issues. UN Secretary General António Guterres is currently holding “serious negotiations” with China to gain unfettered access to the Xinjiang region to verify reports of Uighur treatment and persecution.
In response, Chinese officials have called for its own consumer base to boycott Western brands, especially those that have criticized the Chinese government in light of its use of forced labor, detention, reeducation camps, and other reports of crimes against the Uighurs.
China also has flooded social media with information campaigns to control the narrative and highlight other nation’s human rights’ abuses (including slavery), while trying to persuade their domestic population. Chinese “netizens” and the Chinese Communist Youth League, for instance, also have fought back, telling Western firms that major Chinese e-retailers will remove all of their products from online stores, noting on H&M’s official Weibo account, for instance: “Are you ready [to] completely disappear in China?” and “Countdown to the beginning of withdrawing from the China market,” as reported by Human Rights Watch.