human rights abuses

When human rights violations create trade distortions — the case of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Earlier this week, the EU added a series of individuals and companies to its sanctions list including Chinese officials and entities involved in the alleged extreme human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as others in Russia, Libya and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. See European Council, EU imposes further sanctions over serious violations of human rights around the world, 22 March 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/03/22/eu-imposes-further-sanctions-over-serious-violations-of-human-rights-around-the-world/; Official Journal of the European Union, L 99 I, Council Implementing Regulation (EU) 2021/478 of 22 March 2021 implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/1998 concerning restrictive measures against serious human rights violations and abuses, Vol. 64, pages 1-12, 22 March 2021, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:L:2021:099I:FULL&from=EN. The Official Journal regulation has as one of the bases of concern for a number of countries where individuals or entities are included on the sanctions list the following, “The Union remains deeply concerned about serious human rights violations and abuses in different parts of the world, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances or systematic use of forced labour committed by individuals and entities in China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Libya, Eritrea, South Sudan and Russia.” The regulation includes a page per person/entity being added. Some of the description of why WANG Junzheng has been added to the list is copied below.

“As Party Secretary and Political commissar of the XPCC since 2020, Wang Junzheng is involved in overseeing all policies implemented by the XPCC. In this position, he is responsible for serious human rights violations in China, in particular large-scale arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief, linked, inter alia, to the XPCC’s implementation of a large-scale surveillance, detention and indoctrination programme targeting Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities.

“He is also responsible for the XPCC’s systematic use of Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities as a forced workforce, in particular in cotton fields. As Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the XUAR since 2020, Wang Junzheng is involved in overseeing all the security policies implemented in Xinjiang, including the aforementioned programme targeting Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities. As Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the XUAR (February 2019 to September 2020), Wang Junzheng was responsible for maintaining internal security and law enforcement in the XUAR. As such, he held a key political position in charge of overseeing and implementing the aforementioned programme.”

On the same day, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada issued a joint statement announcing sanctions on individuals and/or an entity in China involved with the alleged human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. See U.S. Department of State press release, Joint Statement on Xinjiang, March 22, 2021, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-xinjiang/. The body of the joint message is copied below.

“We, the Foreign Ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom, and the United States Secretary of State, are united in our deep and ongoing concern regarding China’s human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang. The evidence, including from the Chinese Government’s own documents, satellite imagery, and eyewitness testimony is overwhelming. China’s extensive program of repression includes severe restrictions on religious freedoms, the use of forced labour, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilisations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage.

“Today, we have taken coordinated action on measures, in parallel to measures by the European Union, that send a clear message about the human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang. We are united in calling for China to end its repressive practices against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang, and to release those arbitrarily detained.

“We underline the importance of transparency and accountability and call on China to grant the international community, including independent investigators from the United Nations, journalists, and foreign diplomats, unhindered access to Xinjiang.

“We will continue to stand together to shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations. We stand united and call for justice for those suffering in Xinjiang.”

Australia and New Zealand, while not imposing sanctions themselves, added their voices of concern over the alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang of the Uyghurs. See Minister of Foreign Affairs Australia, Joint statement on Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang, 23 March 2021, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/joint-statement-human-rights-abuses-xinjiang. The Joint Statement is copied below.

“The Australian and New Zealand Governments today reiterate their grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

“In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation.

“Australia and New Zealand welcome the measures announced overnight by Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. We share these countries’ deep concerns, which are held across the Australian and New Zealand communities.

“Since 2018, when reports began to emerge about the detention camps in Xinjiang, Australia and New Zealand have consistently called on China in the United Nations to respect the human rights of the Uighur people, and other religious and ethnic minorities.

“Today, we underscore the importance of transparency and accountability, and reiterate our call on China to grant meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for United Nations experts, and other independent observers.”

While China argues that their treatment of the Uyghurs is an internal matter, the allegations of serious human rights abuses have raised widespread international condemnation and increasing use of sanctions. The sanctions, however, typically are limited to freezing assets (if any) of individuals or entities in the sanctioning country, banning travel to the country imposing the sanctioning, etc.

Trade Implications

While allegations of human rights violations do not necessarily carry trade distortion implications, the case of the forced labor of Uighurs in Xinjiang clearly does. Xinjiang produces some 80% of the cotton grown in China, much of it produced by forced labor according to reports. As China is a major producer of textile and apparel products and a major exporter of the same, the distortions in trade flows should be obvious. Foreign cotton will have trouble competing in China with cotton produced with forced labor. Garment producers who don’t use the Chinese cotton will face distortions as competing against garments where a significant input has been obtained at artificially low prices. Some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada) have laws which permit them to prevent imports of products made with forced labor, although the breadth of the actions taken to date are typically quite limited.

In prior posts, I looked at the large number of products produced around the world with forced labor or with child labor and also looked specifically at the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs reviewing a number of publications and reports. See Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?, January 25, 2021, ttps://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/25/child-labor-and-forced-labor-in-cotton-production-is-there-a-current-wto-mandate-to-identify-and-quantify-the-distortive-effects/ ; Forced labor and child labor — a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, January 24, 2021, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/.

To ramp up pressure on China to reform its treatment of the Uyghurs, the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all other countries concerned about the human rights should coordinate a broad-based denial of imports from China or from other countries where cotton from Xinjiang is part of the product until such time as the treatment of the Uyghurs has been corrected.