The EU, China, and human rights in Xinjiang: Time for a new approach

The EU and its member states have the chance to ramp up the defence of Uighurs at the 9 April EU-China summit in Brussels. They should seize it

Thousands of miles from the gleaming skyscrapers of Shanghai and Guangzhou, a large-scale campaign of repression has taken hold in China’s central Asian province of Xinjiang. The past few years have seen the Chinese government carry out a crackdown on the region’s indigenous Uighur population, members of a Muslim Turkic ethnic group that Beijing has long accused of separatist ambitions and carrying out terrorist attacks. Credible reports have revealed a vast network of re-education camps in which Uighurs have been detained en masse without trial and forced to renounce their cultural and religious identity.

The EU should resume proposing China-specific resolutions in the Human Rights Council as it did annually before 1995

The European Union and its member states have taken note. But amid fears that Chinese political influence in Europe is growing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), what can the EU do to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang: “Transformation” through imprisonment

Xinjiang is in China’s far west, on the border with Kazakhstan, and is a traditionally Uighur-majority region with more cultural and linguistic similarities with neighbouring central Asian countries than with east Asian China. Increased settlement of thousands of Han Chinese in Xinjiang in recent decades has stoked economic grievances and ethnic tensions, culminating in a spate of violent incidents between 2009 and 2014 – rioting in the provincial capital Urumqi in June 2009 resulted in about 200 deaths, mainly of Han Chinese.

Under the pretext of fighting the “three evil forces” in Xinjiang of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, the Chinese government has constructed a number of mass detention centres across Xinjiang, in which it has detained anywhere from several hundred thousand to possibly a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities.

While outside observers have described China’s actions as “cultural genocide,” Chinese authorities speak of “transformation through education” and vocational training centres aimed at preventing radicalisation. Officials initially denied the existence of the camps, but amended a local law in October 2018 to retroactively legalise their existence. Since then, China has arranged a number of diplomatic visits to Xinjiang to quell foreign criticism. It invited EU ambassadors to visit the region at the end of March, but they declined, citing a need for “careful preparation” in order for such a visit to be meaningful.

Europe’s reserved approach

China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang have not gone unnoticed. In August 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination described the province as a “no rights zone,” and raised worries about “numerous credible reports” on the mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims. The following month, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet used her first speech to request that China allow monitors access to Xinjiang in order to investigate the “deeply disturbing” allegations. The EU and its member states have joined the high commissioner in expressing deep concern. At an urgency debate in the European Parliament, EU high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini reiterated Bachelet’s request for a fact-finding mission and urged member states to “carefully consider requests for international protection” from Uighurs fleeing China, in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement.

Some EU member states have heeded Mogherini’s recommendation, notably Sweden, which is set to grant refugee status to all Uighur asylum seekers. Germany does not automatically grant Uighurs refugee status as Sweden does, but its Federal Office for Migration and Refugees reconsiders rejected asylum applications from Xinjiang. After a Uighur asylum-seeker was mistakenly deported from the state of Bavaria and went missing in China, the German government indefinitely suspended repatriation of Uighurs in August 2018. Few Uighurs apply for asylum in Europe, however, as most seek to join large Uighur exile communities in Turkey and Kazakhstan. Beyond changes in asylum policy, European governments have voiced their concerns to the Chinese leadership during official visits, albeit in a relatively restrained fashion. German foreign minister Heiko Maas, for example, expressed his country’s wish for more transparency in Xinjiang while visiting Beijing in November. Maas stressed that Germany “cannot accept re-education camps,” although he did not take a clear position on demands for China to allow access to them. Mogherini raised the mass detentions at the 2018 EU-China Human Rights Dialogue.

The EU and its member states have approached the human rights situation in Xinjiang relatively reservedly, issuing statements condemning the detention campaign and offering protection for the few Uighurs who flee to Europe. But Europe can and should take a more vigorous approach. With the withdrawal of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council and the Trump administration’s distrust of multilateral diplomacy more generally, the EU must step up its responsibility for the defence of the international human rights system. The 2016 Council conclusions: EU Strategy on China, which set the guidelines for the EU’s China policy, state that “promotion of human rights and the rule of law will continue to be a core part of the EU’s engagement with China,” and that several tools are at the EU’s disposal to make good on this promise.

What can Europe do?

Targeted EU sanctions

In response to the violent repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the EU issued an arms embargo on China which is still in place today. Since then, it has placed no other sanctions on China despite continuing human rights concerns, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Wide-ranging economic sanctions are not a realistic or desirable option, considering the diversified nature of the Chinese economy and the high volume of trade between China and the EU. However, sanctions targeting individual officials and firms responsible for organising the mass detentions could be a viable alternative. In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, the US Congress has proposed the “Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2018,” which among other provisions would: apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chen Quanguo, the Chinese Communist Party secretary overseeing the imprisonment campaign; and prohibit the sale of American goods and services to state agents in Xinjiang. The EU could enact similar targeted sanctions to freeze assets, deny visas to Xinjiang officials, and prohibit EU investment in Xinjiang, as it did when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Reconsider the EU-China human rights dialogue

The EU-China human rights dialogue was introduced in 1995 and has essentially come to replace EU sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolutions critical of China’s human rights practices. In its current form, the dialogue is largely confidential, and the Chinese government has attempted to undermine the format by cutting the number of dialogues and refusing to accept participation of critical NGOs invited by the EU. Still, dialogue behind closed doors instead of public scrutiny fits China’s long-term strategy at the UN Human Rights Council. China’s second proposed Human Rights Council resolution aimed to shift the council’s focus away from “name and shame” resolutions aimed at specific countries to promoting “mutually beneficial cooperation” on human rights. This is a euphemism for prioritising weaker accountability mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review, which authoritarian states can more easily manipulate to blunt criticism.

In light of these circumstances, the EU should resume proposing China-specific resolutions in the Human Rights Council as it did annually before 1995. Such a resolution could call for establishing a fact-finding mission in Xinjiang, similar to the EU-sponsored resolution in March 2017 intended to address reports of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The human rights dialogue should be considered a complement to, and not a replacement for, highly public UN-level engagement. To maximise its effectiveness as a tool for human rights promotion, the dialogue could also stipulate the formulation of concrete, action-based policy recommendations and more strictly separate academic and civil society cooperation from intergovernmental negotiations in order to foster a less polarised or politicised discussion.

Address concerns at the upcoming EU-China summit

At the EU-China summit on 9 April in Brussels, the issue of liberalising the Chinese economy and setting deadlines for the removal of priority market access barriers will likely dominate the agenda. However, the EU should not allow economic issues to completely crowd out human rights topics, and should take the opportunity to reiterate its dismay at the situation in Xinjiang.

Beyond the summit, European governments could work towards formally coordinating asylum policy across all EU member states by recognising that the threat of persecution in Xinjiang warrants a valid asylum case, following Sweden’s and Germany’s lead.

New old challenges

These actions, though laudable, would likely prove difficult to implement. The threat of Chinese retaliation, predominantly in the realm of trade, is ever present and a significant deterrent to the passage of sanctions and Human Rights Council resolutions. After Norway awarded Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China suspended all bilateral diplomatic and trade relations, leading Norway’s near-monopolistic share of salmon exports to China to drop from 92 to 29 percent between 2010 and 2013. In the event of sanctions over Xinjiang, some form of retaliation is almost guaranteed, as China has already threatened the US over the proposed Uighur rights bill. In order to minimise the impact of Chinese retaliation, the EU must act as a unified bloc as it did with Russia in 2014 and use its full leverage, ideally in tandem with partners such as the US, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan.

The link between where China chooses to invest and recipient countries’ human rights policy is also significant, especially in the context of the BRI. In the Human Rights Council, a group composed mainly of authoritarian states supports China’s amendments and resolutions aimed at weakening the efficacy of the council. And by providing economic incentives to developing countries China has been able to win support for its human rights agenda, as it has among member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

China has now begun to extend this strategy to Europe too. In 2017, Greece – a recipient of substantial Chinese investment since the beginning of the debt crisis – blocked the signing of a joint EU statement in the Human Rights Council on human rights abuses in China. Hungary similarly blocked a joint letter on the torture of Chinese human rights lawyers. Fears have also grown that Italy could begin to act in a similar way following its endorsement of the BRI. The EU can work against this strategy in the Human Rights Council by strengthening cross-regional alliances with non-European democracies, and in Europe itself by considering EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger’s proposal to give the EU veto power over future Chinese investments.

The EU’s relationship with China is multifaceted and complex, and a European Commission review of EU-China relations published on 12 March recognises this. It acknowledges that “China is simultaneously a cooperation partner, with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives … and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” China will be an indispensable strategic partner in solving issues from climate change and sustainable development to denuclearisation in Iran and on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, the EU must not give China the impression that it can be deterred on human rights by investment and the BRI. Europe cannot afford to alienate China, but it also cannot allow violation of Uighurs’ basic human rights to continue. The upcoming summit in Brussels represents an important moment for a more robust stance on human rights cooperation with China, one the EU should not pass up.

David Marques is a political science student at the University of Chicago and Freie Universität Berlin. His areas of interest include regional international relations (Europe and east Asia) and comparative politics. He is currently a communications intern at ECFR Berlin.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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