At the beginning of this month, the US announced sanctions on 28 Chinese public security bureaus and companies implicated in Beijing’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, while similar sanctions are being considered against the individuals in China’s Communist Party hierarchy in charge of administering the “re-education” of an entire minority ethnic group.
This is a significant change of tune in the attitude of the West toward China. While the rise of the Chinese economy has been looked on with trepidation and perhaps even a tinge of envy, policymakers and private companies in the West have so far been focusing on the seemingly limitless commercial opportunities offered by the rise of China above all other considerations. We scoffed at the undemocratic Chinese state and grumbled at the authoritarian excesses of the Communist Party but, for the most part, we took those things as read and accepted that trading with China would be both necessary and morally compromising. The world is not a nice place, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Or can it? It turns out that China can be called out for its abuses, if there is the political will to do so. The US has just done so. Others can too.
Of course, we should not be naive about the circumstances in which this new development has emerged. The Trump administration may not have imposed these sanctions out of its humanitarian concern for the fate of the Uighurs. For this US administration, this may just be another attempt to gain leverage over Beijing in their ongoing trade war.
But the fact remains that, in this case, these sanctions were the absolute minimum and the right thing to do. Donald Trump has, for once, done well to break a damaging taboo: China can be chastised in a meaningful way for human rights abuses, and it should be presented with consequences for such abuses if its rise to global pre-eminence is not to be the death knell of human rights across the world.
China can be chastised in a meaningful way for human rights abuses, and it should be presented with consequences for such abuses.” – Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
It is true that the US government is in a uniquely good position to criticize China and it has little to fear from the typical Chinese “angry response” to such situations. Washington remains, for the time being, the most powerful global force on the planet. Can smaller countries, especially those that look to China for trading opportunities and inward investment, ever contemplate taking such a stand against Chinese domestic policy?
If they seek to act alone, then such countries would surely suffer. If your government criticizes Beijing, then Beijing will simply take its money and the opportunities it has to offer elsewhere. Your country will be left out of the emerging Chinese global trading network. But, if countries band together, the picture changes dramatically. China needs to expand its trading relationships and it needs to invest abroad to gain access to natural resources and export markets. And if, instead of small, isolated countries that it can pit against one another, it is faced by coordinated blocks of regional power, then it will have no choice but to engage constructively.
The US by itself makes up one such powerful block, so it can impose sanctions and issue condemnations against Beijing at will. China still has to do business with the US, still has to invest there, and so on. A more instructive example is the EU. This is still an association of independent nation states, but an association where the members pool together their external trade policy and face the rest of the world as a common block. As a consequence, it has the latitude to unilaterally defend against, for example, Chinese dumping in the global markets at will, and it can issue formal censure against Beijing for humanitarian issues. The EU can and certainly should follow in the footsteps of the US with similar sanctions in this case.
Other global power blocks can act together too. And the block that most obviously should is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). China needs the oil and natural gas resources commanded by the OIC. And it needs to build its Belt and Road Initiative through the lands of OIC members, one way or another. The Muslim world, if it acts as a whole, can have leverage over China on how it treats Muslims in Xinjiang. And the Muslim world even has the international institutions through which it can act as a whole on this issue. What is lacking is the political will. And so it is left to the US and Europe to defend Muslims in China.
This article originally appeared in Arab News on October 13, 2019.