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The Uyghurs: Europe’s complicity and entanglement with China

Casper Wits is a lecturer in East Asian studies at Leiden University.

A devastating picture has emerged from the recently leaked Xinjiang Police Files — one that should finally lead to a European debate about our own complicity in China’s human rights violations. 

The European Union’s already learning some painful lessons through the war in Ukraine, which should now be applied to the greater systemic challenge on the axis of authoritarian expansionism — China. Economic entanglement with Russia and China has severely damaged the bloc’s strategic position, and crucially, it has resulted in a reluctance to stand up for and defend our values. 

In any future EU debate on Russia, the horrors of Bucha and Mariupol will be foremost on our mind. Similarly, human rights violations in China and, most 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 pursuing economic entanglement with China was always presented as a win-win situation: We would benefit economically, while at the same time bringing change to China, as our influence would lead to political liberalization there.  

But in reality, European leaders like former German Chancellor Angela Merkel structurally downplayed any concerns regarding the violation of human rights and values by Beijing for the sake of short-term profit, and the resulting economic interdependence now severely limits our room for maneuver as an increasingly assertive China expands its global influence.   

Just one example of how the interweaving of our economies and supply chains has made us complicit in Chinese human rights abuses is that an estimated one in five cotton products worldwide now contains “Xinjiang cotton” — produced through forced labor and named after the region. 

Though the European Commission stills 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’s now especially pressing due to China’s efforts to structurally undermine the international human rights system through its influence in the U.N. Human Rights Council, for example. Even more so, after the abdication of leadership on this issue by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on her recent visit to China. 

But the bigger issue is that this is still seen as a fairly isolated issue we can deal with through a cleanup of supply chains, and a little more emphasis on human rights in our foreign policy. This position is untenable, however, as illustrated through recent news that even companies that have made strenuous efforts to wean themselves off the use of Uyghur forced labor — such as the likes of Puma, Adidas and Hugo Boss — were still found to be using Xinjiang cotton in their products.  

As such, the fate of the Uyghurs can’t be isolated from the nature of China’s rise as a whole — neither can it be considered separate from our past choices facilitating Chinese economic expansion and condoning human rights violations that are often its direct result.  

This is because the Uyghurs’ precarious situation is directly related to Xinjiang province’s central position in China’s global economic strategy — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This strategy focuses on six corridors linking China economically with the rest of the Eurasian continent, and no less than three of them run through Xinjiang. The heavy-handed subjugation of the Uyghurs is therefore central to China’s ascent and its industrial policy, and this is a fact even firm action against forced labor won’t change.   

Since 2017, it’s been clear that the region’s seen by the Chinese government as a central hub in the BRI, with a massive $66 billion investment in local infrastructure. Not coincidentally, this was also the year the campaign of mass internment and cultural extermination of the Uyghurs started, as the pacification of the region — a long-standing obsession of Chinese leadership — was seen as more urgent than ever. 

But just as with the barbaric cruelty of Russian troops in Ukraine, China’s cruelty toward the Uyghurs should be seen as a feature — not a bug. 

Much like the ruins of Mariupol, the camps in Xinjiang are a harbinger of a future in which we continue to condone 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’ll largely take place at home as we ask ourselves, to what extent are we prepared to stand up for our values, and at what economic cost? 

Fundamentally, it’s a question about who we want to be. 

The fact that a sizeable number of Europeans are still wearing clothes containing Xinjiang cotton shows we aren’t changing China, but it’s changing us. 

This is what the China debate should be about. 

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