Sanctions only escalate tensions. It’s time to tackle the Uyghurs’ plight differently | China


“Wholly counterproductive”, was how Newcastle academic Joanne Smith Finley described China’s sanctions on her, along with a series of British politicians and lawyers, as punishment for their advocacy for the Uyghurs. That was putting it mildly. But is it the case that western sanctions on China will be, by contrast, productive? Sadly, that seems unlikely.

International outrage at China’s policies of incarceration and social coercion in Xinjiang continues to grow. As someone who has been engaged with the region for two decades, I see that as much needed. But it’s crucial the energy being generated is put to good use. The gloves may be off, but what is the strategy?

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Sanctions send a signal that the world is watching. But if they are to be in any way effective, the sanctioned have to believe that changes to their behaviour will lead to some improvement in relations. There’s little chance of Beijing forming this view, given the state of Sino-western relations. Not while Joe Biden tries to strong-arm China by maintaining Donald Trump’s suite of tariffs and sanctions on its tech companies. Not while Washington provocatively declares that its “defence” interests extend all the way up to China’s coastline – with the Royal Navy now joining in the sabre-rattling in the East and South China Seas.

In such a context, sanctions only escalate tensions, and give politicians an opportunity to posture. “A badge of honour” was how Iain Duncan Smith received his ban from the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the same when she was sanctioned by Trump last August: “It’s an honour.”

China’s sanctions were not equivalent to the UK’s – they were aimed at people taking action against abuses, not at those committing them. But let’s face it, had China reciprocated by sanctioning Britons complicit in human rights abuses, it wouldn’t have had trouble finding suitable candidates, given the UK’s recent military adventures.

Some human rights activists see no option but to take advantage of today’s tensions with China. I can see why: from a human rights point of view, there’s good cause to be wary of economically driven “engagement” with China, as the lure of trade and investment with the world’s second largest economy drowns out the voices of persecuted people.

But the dichotomy that frames this debate – China as best friend or mortal enemy – is not helpful. It reflects the limitations of our own system. Of all the fields of policymaking, foreign policy is one of the most immune to democratic input, leaving it vulnerable to the overriding influence of either economic elites or hawkish security perspectives, each with their own exaggerated image of China. Human rights fall well down the list of priorities in either scenario.

It’s in our own interests, therefore, as much as the interests of people in Xinjiang, to change these dynamics: to give play to the impulse of people around the world to support victims of repression, without stoking an arms race or flirting with a catastrophic war. That requires us to sharply differentiate today’s concern for the wellbeing of the Uyghurs from the US strategy to preserve its “diplomatic, economic, and military preeminence” in Asia.

To pursue this alternative path, we need to grasp what is happening in Xinjiang. “Security crackdowns” there pre-date 9/11, but China today sees itself as engaged in the same “global war on terror” that the west embarked on in the wake of that attack. President Xi Jinping encourages his officials to study its lessons. China’s terrorism experts synthesise the experience of “deradicalisation” campaigns elsewhere – including Britain’s Prevent programme. Just as in the west, isolated terror attacks in China became a pretext for the targeting of its Muslim populations, and it was in this context that the “re-education camps” were built.

Western governments don’t go anywhere near China’s lengths, of course, but their policies reflect the same Islamophobic principle that situates Muslims along a “pathway to radicalisation”. And while critical of Beijing, they lend their support to harsh policies elsewhere in the name of fighting “terrorism”. In the Philippines, for instance, Australia helped draft Rodrigo Duterte’s new anti-terrorism act, which has given cover to the extrajudicial killing of opposition activists.

For the west to generate political pressure on this point, its own anti-Muslim practices need to end. We need to delegitimise our own failed and counterproductive war on terror and the global securitocracy it has given rise to – and situate criticisms of China within that effort. The west’s complicity in China’s crimes is to its shame, but also provides an avenue to exert influence in a more positive direction. Of course, western hawks are unlikely to embrace this perspective, but there are many potential allies who will, including in Muslim-majority countries.

We’ve recently seen in Australia – which has led the anti-China drive that the UK is joining – what can occur when politicians are able to portray international criticism as being made in bad faith. Last November, the Brereton report published disturbing allegations of serious Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. But when a Chinese diplomat tweeted a provocative digital artwork criticising these crimes, prime minister Scott Morrison went on the offensive, expressing more outrage towards the tweet than he had towards the alleged crimes themselves. He rallied support from the Five Eyes alliance to push back against Beijing’s cynical but valid criticism, with Dominic Raab among those labelling it “disinformation”.

Morrison behaved in exactly the same way that China is behaving in the face of criticism: he whipped up nationalism and mobilised international support so as to dismiss the criticism as fake news. His campaign has made it less likely that Australia will take serious action in response to the Brereton report.

If politicians in a liberal democracy can turn foreign criticism to political advantage in this way, it’s no surprise that the Chinese Communist party will try to do the same. For the sake of China’s victims, we have to make a credible case that western opposition to its policies reflects a commitment to justice for all, not geopolitical manoeuvring.

The stalemate surrounding Xinjiang calls for ambitious thinking. If the west is capable of launching a global war on terror, why should it not be able to organise a similarly global campaign to undo the damage that war has done? This is what we should be calling on our politicians to lead, and they should be pressing China to join it.

  • David Brophy is a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney. His book, China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, is published in June