Brussels (Brussels Morning) The European Parliament issued a stern rebuke on Thursday of China’s persecution of the Xinjiang Uyghurs, a Turkic people with a distinct language and culture originating from the Central Asian region formerly known as East Turkestan and one of China’s Muslim ethnicities.
In a show of solidarity with the Uyghurs and their plight as a target for mass human rights abuses — more than one million are estimated to be incarcerated in internment and re-education camps — the Parliament has called for sanctions against China in a bid to curb the use of forced labour.
”We wish to address the crimes against humanity, against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. We are not only criticising the situation but want to follow up with actions. We need to state clearly that we need sanctions,” Greens MEP Reinhard Bütikofer stated.
European companies complicit
In 2018 alone, more than half a million people were forced to pick cotton, an act of modern-day slavery, as part of the Chinese government’s coercive labour training and transfer scheme, the parliamentary resolution notes. Most of China’s cotton originates in Xinjiang and is typically picked by forced labour, making it highly likely that yarns, textiles and garments made with Chinese cotton bear the taint of forced and prison labour, whether manufactured in China or elsewhere. As a result, it is quite likely that European brands and companies benefit from Uighurs as forced labour.
”There are European companies that cannot guarantee that they are not cooperating with the Chinese regime,” Bütikofer remarked. ”Products manufactured in Xinjiang should not land on the EU market.”
To date, China has not ratified the International Labour Organisation ILO’s conventions on forced labour.
The call for sanctions is by no means the first resolution the European Parliament has issued in support of the Uyghur nation. In an interview with Brussels Morning, the World Uyghur Congress laments the lack of follow-up action.
”So far there has been no decisive action from the EU,” says Dolkun Isar, President of the World Uyghur Congress and based in exile in Germany. ”So many European companies continue doing business with China. They also deliver technology for surveillance, and some import that technology for surveillance, as well.”
The Uyghurs had a degree of autonomy in the vast Xinjiang region, incorporated within the Chinese People’s Republic when it was set up in 1949. However, they came under increasing control by Beijing especially once the Communist leadership adopted its version of the War on Terror in the early 2000s. Suspected of violent extremism and separatism from China, despite scant proof, the local population was subjected to surveillance, arbitrary detention and communications blackouts, notably after rioting in Urumqi in 2009.
Human rights groups cite satellite imagery that appeared in media in December showing large-scale detention facilities that serve as modern-day labour camps where detainees are forced to serve in the production units. Foreign companies have been under pressure to set up subsidiaries in the remoter Chinese regions in line with the government’s policy on shifting production from the country’s over-populated coastal regions to the less densely inhabited Western part.
Outrage in the Parliament
Belgian MEP Assita Kanko with the Conservatives’ ECR group was outraged at the forced abortions and sterilisations that have reportedly taken place in Xinjiang.
”Can you imagine what it must be like to be tortured and used as a slave, to have your children taken away from you?,” she asked rhetorically in the parlimanetary session held in Brussels on Thursday. ”Some 20% of world cotton production originates in Xinjiang, often harvested with the use of forced labour”, she noted.
The Commission is expected to put forward a mandatory due diligence scheme asserting human rights standards for business supply chains next year.
”China is a country in fact carrying out actions that fall under the definition of a genocide. The EU must place an import ban on Chinese products produced using forced labour, Kanko stated.
Sean Kelly (Conservatives’ EPP group) was alarmed at President Xi’s use of powers to suffocate internal dissent and demands for political reform.
”Like many in this house, I am deeply concerned about the increasingly suppressive regime in China and the many villagers and ethnic minorities, in particular the Uyghurs and Kazakhs, who face violations of their human dignity as well as a denial of their rights to freedom of speech, cultural expression and religious belief rights as well as right to peaceful assembly,” Kelly said,
For the Commission, Helena Dalli noted that China’s policy appears disproportionate in relation to its stated aims of fighting terrorism and extremism in the region. EU leaders raised these concerns at the EU-China summit this year.
”Defending human rights and combating forced labour are priorities for the EU. China should ensure that business activities meet international standards on labour rights. The EU has mandatory labour production standards in some sectors. European companies are under obligation to implement due diligence of production standards throughout the chain,” the Commissioner assured.
The situation in Xinjiang, where more than 10 million Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs live, has deteriorated rapidly, notably since the launch of the Chinese government’s ”Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism” campaign in 2014. Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitalised surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored.
Through facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans and aggregation of personal data, as well as an extensive police presence, the Uyhgurs and other local ethnicities are kept under a near-totalitarian social control system.
The European Parliament denounced China’s increasingly harsh treatment of its minorities, in particular the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians, and its underlying aim of assimilating them through the imposition of the Chinese majority lifestyle and communist ideology. Testifying about their experience in the internment camps, victims have reported how they were forced to pledge allegiance to Chinese leaders every morning and to renounce their own language and religious practices.
“The situation has worsened considerably over the last few years. Our existence is under threat.” Dolkun Isar, the World Uyghur Congress President, claims. ”Lives are at risk and it is also about religion persecution.”
Other than the internment camps, almost a million Uyghur children have been forcibly sent to boarding schools to be separated from their families. Also, many Uyghur professors have been incarcerated, among them last year’s Sakharov prize winner Ilham Tohti. A prominent Uyghur intellectual and advocate for Uyghur cultural rights, he was imprisoned on charges of separatism following a show trial in 2014. It remains uncertain as to whether the death sentence that was pronounced has been commuted to life imprisonment. ”There is no news from Ilham Tohti in prison,” Dolkun Isar says, deploring the fact that the EU ”has not taken strong enough action to save his life.”
Exiled Uyghurs afraid
Uyghurs abroad are afraid, fearing both for their families in Xinjiang and for their own safety, since they are aware that the Chinese government has been monitoring them in exile. There have been forced deportations from south-east Asian countries whereby Uyghurs have been forcibly returned to China. Exiled Uyghurs are frequently blocked from any contact with family in Xinjiang.
”How can Europe conduct business as usual with a government that exercises repression?, Dolkun Isar demands. ”The EU-China investment agreement would have been a good opportunity for the EU to insist on strong human rights language and hold China to its obligations.”
He now looks to the new human rights sanctions’ regime agreed to by the EU last week as a means for taking action against atrocities.
”The EU should adopt global human rights sanctions to make sure that those responsible for these crimes do not go unpunished,” he says. ”The EU must decide what it wants to represent. If it is serious about leading on human rights worldwide, it cannot remain silent.”
The Chinese policy of favouring population transfers to the less densely populated western regions has resulted in a shift in the delicate ethnic balance in the large provinces which traditionally were dominated by Tibetans or Muslims ethnicities respectively.
According to Dolkun Isar, 2016 saw the situation take a turn for the worse. ”Since then, the use of the same methods for repression as in Tibet, has been turning the region into an open-air prison. The Chinese government has a long history in discriminating against and assimilating these minorities. Since the occupation of the region in 1949, it has been on-going.”