When asked whether Germany and the EU should enter into an investment agreement with China, while Uighurs there are being subjected to forced labor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel effectively dodged the question, saying she would "rather not answer hypothetical questions". Pictured: Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) chats with Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron (second from right) and then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the Élysée in Paris on March 26, 2019. (Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
More proof that China is committing grave human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang has emerged. New evidence suggests that Uighurs, in addition to being detained in reeducation camps and coerced into working in textile manufacturing factories, are also forced to pick cotton.
Twenty percent of the world's cotton is sourced in Xinjiang, in addition to 85% of China's cotton being produced there. China is the world's largest producer and exporter of yarn, and the largest producer and exporter of textiles and apparel.
In addition, China has been discovered to use technology that arbitrarily selects Uighurs for detention through a data program that collects data about them and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening for possible detention.
The recent discoveries come just a week after the European Union (EU) adopted its new Magnitsky-style global human rights sanctions regime on December 7, which allows the EU to target individuals, entities and bodies, including state and non-state actors, "responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide". According to the EU's new sanctions regime, any member state or the current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, can propose sanctions, which it is then up to the collective of member states to adopt.
A year ago, in December 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called on the EU to impose targeted sanctions and asset-freezes on Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations toward the Uighurs, including a ban of Chinese exports into the EU produced with forced labor. Borrell told the European Parliament at the time:
"About sanctions, it is true that the Americans, the U.S. have been very much active in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, 28 Chinese governmental institutions and companies for their role in Xinjiang. We have not done it. We have a different system.
"You know that I am trying to improve it by launching an initiative that could allow us to approve something equivalent to the Magnitsky Act. We will inform you about the work that we have already started. I need unanimity in the Council in order to do such a thing. I will fight for it."
One year later, the EU now has a Magnitsky-system. No sanctions, however, have been suggested, whether by member states or by Borrell himself.
At the press conference about the adoption of the new human rights sanctions regime on December 7, 2020, Borrell was asked, now that the EU had its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime in place, whether Chinese officials involved in the repression of the Uighurs should and would be considered for human right sanctions. Without acknowledging that he himself has the authority to put forward such a proposal, Borrell answered:
"Sanctions are triggered when a Member State puts forward a proposal. For the time being, no one has done it. Once again, it does not prevent that from happening in the future; but for the time being, on your specific question, no Member State has put on the table a proposal for sanctions. Let us see in the future; for the time being my concrete answer is clear".
On December 17, the European Parliament adopted instead a strongly-worded condemnation of China's actions in Xinjiang. The parliament deplored "the ongoing persecution and the serious and systematic human rights violations" as "crimes against humanity" and welcomed the adoption of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. It called on the EU's Member States, and Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell,
"to swiftly evaluate the adoption of sanctions against the Chinese officials and state-led entities... responsible for devising and implementing the policy of mass detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, for the use of forced labour, and for orchestrating the severe repression of religious freedom, freedom of movement and other basic rights in the region and in other places, such as Tibet..."
The parliament also regretted "the fact that the approach taken and the tools used by the EU so far have not yielded tangible progress in China's human rights record which has only deteriorated over the last decade".
In contrast to the EU, the US Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in June 2019, and on September 22, 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The US has sanctioned at least 28 Chinese officials over their actions in Xinjiang. The list includes senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, such as current Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who executes Chinese government policy in the region. He is also the current First Political Commissar of the XPCC, a role in which he has exercised control over the entity. According to the US Department of the Treasury:
"The XPCC is a paramilitary organization in the XUAR that is subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The XPCC enhances internal control over the region by advancing China's vision of economic development in XUAR that emphasizes subordination to central planning and resource extraction. The XPCC's structure reflects a military organization, with 14 divisions made up of dozens of regiments... [Chen Quanguo]... has a notorious history of intensifying security operations in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where he was deployed before arriving in Xinjiang..."
Meanwhile, the European Council, consisting of the heads of state of the EU member states and that is currently presided over by Germany, is unlikely to demand anything from China, let alone sanction it or do anything that might jeopardize its trade with Europe. This year, for the first time, China became the EU's largest trading partner, surpassing the US.
Crucially, the EU does not want to jeopardize the finalization of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which the EU and China have sought to realize for seven years now. According to a December 17 report by the Financial Times:
"China and the EU are rushing to meet a year-end deadline to seal a long-awaited investment agreement, in a sign of the bloc's push to build strategic ties with Beijing, even as it revives relations with the US.
"The likelihood of the accord being settled soon is rising despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis, officials from both sides have said.
"A shift by Beijing in the important area of market access has given the process additional momentum, EU officials said.
"The EU has long yearned for an agreement to allow its companies wider entry to the Chinese market, and the two sides agreed last year that it should be concluded by the end of 2020. Securing a deal would be a diplomatic coup for both powers."
Referring to the new resolution of the European Parliament on the Uighur situation, Member of the German Bundestag for the Greens, Margarete Bause, asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel whether Germany and the EU should enter into an investment agreement with China, while Uighurs there are being subjected to forced labor. Merkel effectively dodged the question, acknowledging that she was aware of the issue, but that as the negotiations were underway, she would "rather not answer hypothetical questions".
When the EU finalizes the EU-China investment agreement, whenever that will be, without any serious preconditions regarding China's human rights abuses, it will have missed a crucial opportunity to mark Europe's commitments to the human rights that it so often proclaims. By rushing into the deal before the year's end, furthermore, the EU will have unilaterally prejudiced any transatlantic cooperation that might have been used to counter China with the incoming US administration. Crucially, the EU will project capitulation -- in the words of the quote attributed to Russia's Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them" -- whereas China will be emboldened in its human rights violations from Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong to the rest of the Pacific and beyond.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.