A Tale of Two Countries: Genocide in Xinjiang
While Washington DC condemned genocide in China, Westminster chose trade over human rights.
Jan. 19 was a historic day — for many reasons. Most people will remember it as the final full day in the White House for Donald Trump. But something far more important consumed the day, as, on both sides of the Atlantic, politicians gave their verdict on the genocide and human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China.
It was a tale of two countries.
Both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration condemned Chinese rights abuses in Xinjiang, calling it a “genocide”. The state department’s report was highly critical, and rightly so. It called out China’s internment of more than a million Uyghur Muslims in the region, and their abuse, torture, deprivation, and murder.
This report came after the administration recently blocked all cotton and tomato imports from Xinjiang due to suspicions of the use of forced labour in supply chains in the besieged region. We can all be glad that Trump, a dangerous threat to democracy, and Pompeo, a Secretary of State who has indulged Trump by engaging in conspiracy theories about China inventing Sars-CoV-2, have now gone. But whatever our other political views, the Trump administration has led well on the issue of genocide in Xinjiang.
Joe Biden, too, has shown a clear willingness to stick with this strategy, though tempering its wilder, conspiracy theory edges. Back in August last year, he called China’s actions a genocide, and he has repeated that time and again since.
Both sides of the political aisle in the US are showing an admirable commitment to upholding human rights and defending persecuted minorities, at least where China’s abuses in Xinjiang province are concerned.
That could not be less true in the UK. A Jan. 19 vote on the amendments made to the Trade Bill by the House of Lords rubbished the genocide amendment by a majority, albeit slim (the Commons has 650 members), of 11 votes.
The amendment was designed to provide an additional, more effective layer of scrutiny over all future trade negotiations: if the High Court declared a country to be perpetrating genocide, then the government would not be able to enter into trade negotiations.
The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and many other opposition parties took a principled stand against the government’s motion to scrap the amendment, voting in favour of human rights, compassion, and dignity. The Conservative government whipped its members to rubbish the amendment, and most of their MPs did: around 30 rebelled to vote against, and some abstained on the bill. In the end, the rebellion was not enough.
Conservative MPs justified voting against the amendment under the guise of standing for parliamentary sovereignty, a key principle of the British constitution, and against judicial overreach, as the courts are traditionally weak against the will of Parliament in the UK. They demanded that MPs be given the say, but with a large government majority and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, saying that he wants a “productive relationship” with China, it looks highly unlikely that MPs would block a trade agreement on the basis of genocide and human rights abuses.
“Of course I am horrified by the rights abuses in Xinjiang, Mr Speaker, but it is not for the courts to decide who the government can make trade agreements with,” was the general sentiment from Tory MPs.
That raises an obvious question, in light of the government saying that it is for international courts of law to determine genocide, not British courts: why should the UK accept the verdict of the flawed international legal system, which China and other rights abusers have infiltrated and now control, when we could accept instead the verdict of our much more functional legal system, which is not subject to Chinese influence and control (at least not in an ideal world — see my article on China exporting its suppression of free speech for more on Chinese influence in the UK and elsewhere)?
The only answer I can think of to this question, is that the government is putting trade over rights, or, perhaps even more dangerously, is buying into the German principle of Wandel durch Handel, or change through trade, and believes that trade and rights are mutually inclusive.
For the global response to Chinese genocide in Xinjiang, it was an important day, but not wholly for the right reasons. The Western world’s philosophy on dealing with China and Russia is only diverging yet more: the US opposing rights abuses, genocide, and authoritarianism abroad; the EU and UK choosing to trade, while “calling out” rights abuses.
But calling them out isn’t enough. China and Russia don’t respond to criticism, they respond to incentives. The only way to re-set those incentives is to refuse to trade with them, and slowly divest from trade to the greatest extent possible.
Jan. 19 was a day of binary opposites, a tale of two countries, allied against China, but only one of them taking the principled stand against abuses.