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The China Challenge: The West Struggles To Respond To Beijing’s Forced-Labor Camps
The greater their share of exports to the mainland, the less critical G-7 countries are of its human rights abuses
By Christine McDaniel and Weifeng Zhong
The history of forced-labor camps in the People’s Republic of China is as long as the regime itself. Chairman Mao Zedong established the camps to “reform” dissidents and alleged criminals through labor and indoctrination. Today the system incarcerates hundreds of thousands of people who never see a courtroom and are forced to produce goods for little or no pay.
Not only are the detainees indoctrinated, tortured and sometimes killed, but the products they make are sold around the world, generating profits for the regime. A report last year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 27 factories in nine of China’s provinces that are using minority-Uyghur forced labor, and those factories say they are part of the supply chains of 82 global brands. The label “Made in China,” ubiquitous for decades, now has a new, sinister meaning.
The U.S. and other liberal democracies are becoming increasingly uncomfortable about this. Their citizens can be unknowing consumers of products from forced-labor camps and, as human rights groups highlight more examples, the allegations of abuse are now too obvious to ignore.
These governments, however, struggle to develop a strategy for getting China to stop the abuses, or for even shielding their countries from being complicit. Preventing companies from making their products in forced-labor camps, often unwittingly, or keeping these products out of the country is proving next to impossible.
Broad and bold trade sanctions might force Beijing to address the issue. But China is the largest trading partner of nearly every country in the Group of Seven and integral to global supply chains, and no government has been willing to pursue such action. Indeed, the strength of a government’s criticism of China appears to be inversely related to the share of its country’s exports that goes to China—the more products it sends to the mainland, the weaker the statements (see table).
When people see that their government’s response to human rights abuses is ineffective, civil society can help hold oppressors accountable. For instance, activists and the news media can keep the public informed. And advances in technology now make it easier for companies to trace the origin of their goods. But China is intent on punishing those who speak out. So far, few companies appear willing to incur Beijing’s wrath.
Xi Jinping’s Visit to Xinjiang
The human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which Beijing calls “vocational training” for Uyghurs, have roiled relations with China for several years. They appear to have started after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the northwest region of Xinjiang in 2014, when he was reportedly surprised to learn that the Uyghurs “hadn’t become Sinified yet.” (Under Sinification, people are trained in the language, politics and social norms of the majority Han Chinese and assimilated into the mainstream culture.) Beijing decided that Xinjiang was a hotbed of extreme ideas and began a crackdown. Chinese authorities have detained some 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in internment camps since April 2017, according to a U.S. government assessment.
A line can be drawn from perhaps the most famous person Mao incarcerated—Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the fallen last emperor of China—to the atrocious treatment of the Uyghurs today. Captured by the Soviet Union, Puyi was repatriated to China in 1950 and sent to one of the earliest “re-education” camps set up by the communist government. The intention was clear: Puyi represented what was bad before Mao—imperial rule, the Japanese invasion—so a successful “reform” of the fallen emperor would demonstrate the righteousness of the new regime.
The “reform” seems to have gone as planned. According to his autobiography, “From Emperor to Citizen,” Puyi spent 10 years in the camp learning communist ideology and working various jobs with little pay, including making paper boxes for a match factory that partnered with the camp. He confessed to his war crimes after a few years, and when he was finally released, he proclaimed in tears that the great country had “turned him into a man.”
But subsequent detainees in the forced-labor system were not as lucky as the last emperor. The desire to maintain tight political and social control and the lure of big profits, especially after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, led to an increasing use of forced labor.
Caving on Human Rights
The failure of liberal democracies to mount a tough, unified response to the Uyghur forced-labor camps is the latest in a series of tepid reactions to human rights abuses in China. Recall the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square, the slow and steady effort to wipe out the Tibetan people throughout the 1990s, and the 2006 Kilgour-Matas investigative report on the allegations of nonconsensual organ harvesting from live people: There were diplomatic measures but no change in China’s behavior.
Human rights were a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy during the Carter administration and often overshadowed even Cold War concerns. Since then, however, Washington has primarily resorted to words and symbolic gestures to send a message, such as reducing official visits or military contacts. Such gestures rarely lead to change.
At times the U.S. has taken stronger measures to improve human rights. Last year the Trump administration sanctioned many Chinese officials and government bureaus involved in suppressing Uyghurs, added numerous Chinese companies to an export blacklist and blocked cotton imports from Xinjiang.
But those actions are exceptions. Even the Carter administration was unwilling to confront the South African government over abuses during the apartheid era because economic interests took precedence. Roberta Cohen, who headed the State Department’s first human rights bureau in the Carter era, said she was not allowed to even suggest economic sanctions to her assistant secretary. The Reagan administration continued to oppose sanctions as it needed South Africa’s cooperation in countering the Soviet Union and Cuba.
The lesson is clear: Despite strongly held values on human rights by liberal democracies, economic and strategic interests can often pull their foreign policy in a different direction. Consider June’s G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England. The perfunctory communique pledges to “promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang.”
But each country’s individual statements on Xinjiang have varied. Countries making weaker statements tend to export more to China. Germany’s goal is “to see significant progress on labor rights” (16.8% of Germany’s exports go to China), while Canada is “gravely concerned” (5%), and the U.K. calls the violations “the worst human rights crises of our time” (4.7%). Japan has the highest reliance on China for exports (19%) and issued a joint statement with the U.S. expressing “serious concerns.”
Civil Society’s Role
This leaves civil society to fill the gap in defending human rights in China. Memorable examples include the film “Seven Years in Tibet”; Shen Yun Performing Arts, founded by practitioners of the persecuted Falun Gong movement; and Oregon mother Julie Keith, who found an SOS note from a labor camp detainee in a Halloween decoration and went to the press. Most recently, Amelia Pang in her book “Made in China” told the harrowing story of that SOS note’s author, Sun Yi.
New digital distributed ledger technology that enables end-to-end tracing of goods could be enlisted to improve human rights in China. Companies are already using it for other purposes. Walmart has a Hyperledger that can trace the origin of a food product in seconds. Chocolate-makers trace the lots in each stage in the manufacturing process to stamp out child labor in the supply chain. This same approach could be used to assure companies and consumers that nothing in the products they buy was made with forced labor.
There’s just one problem—for this technology to work at scale requires willing and able participants all along the supply chain and across borders. But Beijing repeatedly demonstrates its willingness to intimidate companies, domestic and foreign. This year China passed legislation allowing government officials to prohibit companies from complying with Western sanctions. So, it’s not hard to see the party sanctioning companies that use the new technology to track the provenance of goods. Making a stand for human rights might mean getting kicked out of China.
As with every other “China Challenge,” it’s hard to escape economist Thomas Sowell’s wisdom: There are no solutions, only trade-offs.