This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. designation of China’s repression of ethnic Uyghurs in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as genocide must be followed with stronger economic sanctions and a concerted international effort to push Beijing to reverse course, according to a group of experts.
Chinese policies in the XUAR aim for “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group,” outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as he announced a designation that Uyghur exile groups have advocated since the revelation in 2017 of mass internment camps that have held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the designation, suggesting that President Joe Biden’s administration will pursue a more forceful approach in holding China accountable for its abuses in the region.
China experts recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the most effective actions Washington can take include hitting China with economic sanctions in addition to measures blocking trade and travel placed on Chinese officials and companies in the XUAR last year by the Trump administration.
They also called for a more multilateral approach to censuring China and ostracizing it from the international community that they believe could lead Beijing to adjust its policies targeting Uyghurs in the XUAR.
German researcher Adrian Zenz, a leading expert on China’s policies toward Uyghurs whose research provided critical evidence of abusive policies in the XUAR, noted that the designation has “legal ramifications” for foreign policy towards Beijing because the U.S. has an obligation to act to prevent genocide.
“In my opinion, one of the most promising strategies to do something about the situation is to be very tough and comprehensive on forced labor because that is an economic aspect of this and the Communist Party is very sensitive towards the economic side and to profit,” said Zenz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) to detain all cotton products and tomatoes from the XUAR at the country’s ports of entry, saying that the agency had identified indicators of forced labor including debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions.
The U.S. imported U.S. $9 billion worth of cotton products and $10 million of tomatoes from China over the past year, according to the CBP. Most of China’s cotton is from the XUAR.
Zenz said such moves have an impact on China’s “high-level earnings,” and can force Beijing to pay attention.
“When it comes to money, they really listen,” he said.
Reports suggest that amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.
Zenz called for Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was introduced in March last year and passed by the House of Representatives, but never brought to the floor by the Senate, and would block imports from the region unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.
“That puts an import ban on any product from Xinjiang and additional measures for the forced labor transfer to other parts of China,” he said.
Anders Corr, who publishes the Journal of Political Risk and Principal at Corr Analytics, told RFA that the Biden administration should be ready for tests from Beijing and wary of any attempt at “baby steps” towards improvement of relations with China.
“A genocidal country is not a country that you can reach some kind of rapprochement with by using baby steps,” he said.
Instead, he suggested, China should be made accountable for the XUAR atrocities in a way that “dovetails” with U.S. economic policy goals.
“We need to move from a position of strength against the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and that means really tough economic sanctions—tariffs that would pull U.S. and allied business out of China into allied countries and the U.S. to produce jobs and economic wealth.”
Corr said that the industrial and economic power that the U.S. has shifted to China since the 1980s “is being used against us both in terms of economic and political influence operations in the production of a world-class military by the Chinese through technology theft [and] industrial espionage.”
“All of that needs to be pulled back and genocide is a very good reason and a strong reason to do so.”
In a guest post to The China Collection blog, run by a group of academics who follow developments in modern China, James Millward, professor of Intersocietal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, said the designation could spearhead an international movement against China’s policies in the XUAR.
“Hopefully, it will help the Biden administration rally other nations to condemn [China’s] treatment of Uyghurs and others, and expand the use of targeted Magnitsky-type sanctions and scrutiny of supply chains linked to Xinjiang, Xinjiang local government offices, [key paramilitary group] the Bingtuan (XPCC) and Chinese and international firms that deal with these entities,” he said.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration in July leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
Millward noted that the European Union and Britain have trade deals pending with China, but cautioned that the U.S. designation “should give the relevant parliaments pause before they rush into blanket trade deals that follow business-as-usual protocols.”
Corr and Zenz also suggested that the rest of the world may follow Washington’s lead and work together to sanction China for its abuses in other ways.
Corr noted that there has been talk of boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but said the global community should take an even stronger step by moving the games to a new location.
“We don’t want the boycotting nations to lose all of those gold medals—we want them to win gold medals, but we want the good guys to win gold medals in some other better countries,” he said.
Zenz said he expects the Biden administration to pursue a multilateral approach and work to mobilize other countries because the U.S. has exhausted many of the avenues it has to punish China on its own.
He said the international community is likely to join forces with Washington because “the damage to China’s global image is mounting and growing, and that’s not insignificant.”
“If this increases and if this also leads to significant issues for holding the Beijing Olympics, that could be a factor that could potentially lead China to at least mitigate or make some amendments to its strategy,” he said.