China’s response to criticisms of horrifying human rights violations in Xinjiang is clear and calculated. Its aims are threefold. First, the sanctions imposed upon individuals and institutions in the EU and UK are direct retaliation for those imposed upon China over its treatment of Uighurs. That does not mean they are like-for-like: the EU and UK measures targeted officials responsible for human rights abuses, while these target non-state actors – elected politicians, thinktanks, lawyers and academics – simply for criticising those abuses.
Second, they seek more broadly to deter any criticism over Xinjiang, where Beijing denies any rights violations. Third, they appear to be intended to send a message to the EU, UK and others not to fall in line with the harsher US approach towards China generally. Beijing sees human rights concerns as a pretext for defending western hegemony, pointing to historic and current abuses committed by its critics. But mostly it believes it no longer needs to tolerate challenges.
Alongside the sanctions, not coincidentally, has come a social media storm and consumer boycott targeting the Swedish clothing chain H&M and other fashion firms over concerns they voiced about reports of forced labour in cotton production in Xinjiang. Nationalism is a real and potent force in China (though not universal), but this outburst does not appear spontaneous: it began when the Communist Youth League picked up on an eight-month-old statement, and is being egged on by state media.
China has used its economic might to punish critics before – Norway’s salmon exports slumped after dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel peace prize – and often with the desired results. But this time, it is acting far more overtly, and it is fighting on multiple fronts. Some clothing companies are already falling into line. Overall, the results are more complex. The sanctions have drastically lowered the odds of the European parliament approving the investment deal which China and the EU agreed in December, to US annoyance. Beijing may think the agreement less useful to China than it is to the EU (though many in Europe disagree). But the measures have done more to push Europe towards alignment with the US than anything Joe Biden could have offered, at a time when China is also alienating other players, notably Australia.
Foreigners – who in many cases have offered more nuanced voices to counter outright China hawks – are already becoming wary of travelling there, following the detention and trial of two Canadians, essentially taken hostage following their country’s arrest (on a US extradition request) of a top Huawei executive. The sanctioning of scholars and thinktanks is likely to make them more so. Businesses, though still counting on the vast Chinese market, are very belatedly realising the risks attached to it. Those include not only the difficulty of reconciling their positions for consumers inside and outside China, but the challenges they face as the US seeks to pass legislation cracking down on goods made with forced labour, and the potential to be caught up in political skirmishes by virtue of nationality. For those beginning to have second thoughts, rethinking investments or disentangling supply chains will be the work of years or decades. But while we will continue to live in a globalised economy, there is likely to be more decoupling than people foresaw.
The pandemic has solidified a growing Chinese confidence that the west is in decline, but has also shown how closely our fates are tied. There can be no solutions on the climate emergency without Beijing, and cooperation on other issues will be both possible and necessary – but extraordinarily difficult.
Beijing’s delayed response to the UK sanctions suggests it did not anticipate them, perhaps unsurprising when the integrated review suggested we should somehow court trade and investment while also taking a tougher line. But the prime minister and foreign secretary have, rightly, made their support for sanctioned individuals and their concerns about gross human rights violations in Xinjiang clear. Academics and politicians, universities and other institutions, should follow their lead in backing targeted colleagues and bodies. China has made its position plain. So should democratic societies.