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15 January 2021updated 16 Jan 2021 10:36pm

China’s persecution of the Uighurs is a moral outrage – the UK must show leadership

Britain should not allow economic interests to distract from the need to hold China accountable for its crimes.

By Freddie Hayward

The current situation in China’s Xinjiang province is a moral disaster. The Uighur population are being persecuted in a systematic and totalitarian manner that is destroying their culture and social fabric. Forced sterilisation; labour camps; the internment of more than one million people; the bulldozing of mosques; mass surveillance; and “thought education”. This is one of the defining crises of our age and requires a decisive response. 

The UK has taken a leading role in coordinating the international response to the Uighur crisis. The government is pursuing a multilateral approach through international institutions such as the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. In October, the UK led a joint statement at the UN Third Committee calling for independent observers to be granted unfettered access to Xinjiang. This is important: an authoritative report from an independent body would be a key mechanism for holding China to account – as it was with the atrocities in Myanmar

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, believes that this approach will be helped by the incoming Biden administration: “I think that president-elect Biden will internationalise more successfully than President Trump,” he told me. “So, I don’t think that the substance of policy – realising that action on China is important – will change but what I do think will change is the ability to bring other countries together.” 

[See also: Seven predictions for the world in 2021]

But the UK must also do more on a unilateral level – at present, there is a disparity between its rhetoric and its action. On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced measures to reduce the possibility of goods produced by forced labour in Xinjiang entering the UK market, as well as a review of government procurement and export controls. These are welcome but not as stringent as the US’s ban on all cotton and tomato products from the Xinjiang region. 

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While Raab –  a former human rights lawyer and the son of a Holocaust refugee – sincerely condemns “barbarism” and “torture” he retreats into phrases such as “keeping it under review” and “gather the evidence” when faced with calls for stronger action. Sanctions against Chinese officials were absent from the Foreign Secretary’s speech – as they were from a list of new Magnitsky sanctions in December. Following the announcement, Stephen Rapp, the former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, reminded the foreign affairs select committee that it’s not abstract entities that commit these egregious acts, but individuals. Perpetrators such as the Communist Party secretary of the region, Chen Quanguo, should at the very least be subject to constraints on their movements and access to international banking. 

It’s a tragedy that we have a Prime Minister who treats moral issues with an infantile flippancy. When asked this week at the MPs’ liaison committee about the Uighur crisis, Boris Johnson replied: “Speaking frankly and calling out human rights abuses should not stop us from having a productive relationship where that is possible.” He is more concerned with stressing the importance of the UK’s relationship with China than confronting the atrocities of the Communist Party. 

[See also: China’s missing million: the search for disappeared Uyghurs]

The EU has been equally concerned about maintaining a “productive relationship” with China. The bloc recently signed an investment deal with the country, which Tugendhat, believes is “extremely unfortunate”. It seems that China’s economics might intrude on the moral deliberations of many states. With its UN Security Council veto and huge levels of investment throughout the world, it is well-placed to repel any attempts to hold it to account. 

China is currently operating with impunity. In an interview in July, the UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming told Andrew Marr that “people in Xinjiang enjoy a happy life” and last week its embassy in the US tweeted: “Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They are more confident and independent.” In the two largest Uyghur regions of Xinjiang population growth rates fell by 84 per cent between 2015 and 2018. 

This is a crisis couched in the language of the US-led “war on terror” and fronted by men in suits. It’s also a crisis perpetrated by a member of the UN Security Council, the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest investor in renewable energy. China’s global heft means the challenge of responding to the persecution of the Uighurs is a unique one. But that the UK and all self-respecting nations must do more can no longer be denied. 

[See also: How international events emboldened China’s latest Hong Kong crackdown]