How Australia should approach China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang

Australia has traditionally held the conventional wisdom that as China grew economically, it would establish a middle class that would pressure the government to recognise human rights. Under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instead shown that economic growth can reinforce a dictatorship. 

The religious and ethnic persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province is of growing concern to the Australian government. The United Nations estimates that at least one million Turkic Muslims are being detained in internment camps and forced to undergo ideological re-education. Uyghurs are currently working within factories of well-known multinational companies such as Apple, BMW, Volkswagen and Nike in conditions which strongly suggest forced labour.

Amnesty International alongside members of the international community have criticised the CCP over its treatment of the Uyghur people. President Xi, has been unmoved by this mounting  pressure, recently remarking that the Chinese approach to its internal affairs was “completely correct” and remained a “major task for the entire party and nation.”

Amnesty recognises that Australia is deeply committed to human rights. Australia recently passed its Modern Slavery Act (2019) to combat violations of human freedom in global supply chains. Australia has also utilised its status as a constructive middle power to promote human rights through forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (2018-2020) and the ‘Liechtenstein initiative.’

Australia’s current approach towards China’s abuses prioritises soft diplomacy and is premised in the belief that China will eventually progress to respect the human rights of its citizens. Amnesty stresses that this approach of quiet diplomacy has proven to be ineffective. Therefore, Australia must immediately reform its foreign policy approach towards the CCP. If left unchecked, the threat posed by China’s human rights violations undermines Australia’s  objectives to promote human rights and makes a mockery of the international human rights framework. 

Recommendations: 

1.  Australia should implement a preferential refugee program to provide Uighur Muslims with priority protection and resettlement in Australia; 

2. Australia should follow the United States in screening and banning certain exports believed to have been produced by forced Uyghur labour;

3. Australian state visits to China should be conditioned on human rights progress and the granting of access for UN investigators to independently assess conditions in Xinjiang. 

Human Rights Council

Action on China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims presents a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate international leadership through human rights advocacy. China has continued to manipulate the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by proposing resolutions which undermine the international system. In 2018, China proposed a UNHRC resolution calling on states to ‘promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’ The resolution implied that human rights could be negotiated and that economic development should take precedence over individual human rights. This stance weakens the international human rights framework by normalising the idea that human rights are voluntary.

While Australia and other countries have leveraged international forums to criticise the CCP’s human rights abuses, such motions have been completely ignored by China. In 2019, Australia partnered with 21 other UNHCR countries in writing a letter to the CCP calling for an end to the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims. China retaliated by suspending its human rights partnership with Australia.

2020 marks Australia’s final year on the UNHRC. Though Australia’s lobbying has not resulted in a marked improvement to human rights in China, Australia must take advantage of its final months on the Council. Australia could draw attention to its human rights initiatives on the Council by establishing a preferential refugee program to provide Uyghurs with priority protection in Australia. This would enable Uyghurs willing and able to escape from persecution to rebuild their lives. It is currently estimated that there 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. While Australia is unable to facilitate what will likely be a mass influx of people, Australia could commit to a refugee quota and encourage its partners to help shoulder the burden. Though this policy will not address the root causes of the human rights abuses in China, it will send a clear message to the CCP that its behaviour is unacceptable, while providing safety and security to survivors. 

International Leadership

Australia has an opportunity to enhance its status as a regional and world leader in human rights by renouncing China’s abuses. While Foreign Affairs Minister Payne has previously criticised China for its repressive policies against the Uyghurs, Australia can and must do more.  

State visits are a foundation of international diplomacy, and the CCP utilises photos opportunities  from foreign visits to fuel propaganda. In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron visited China and made no public mention of human rights concerns. Quiet diplomacy is ineffective in pressuring the Chinese government to modify its behaviour. Most importantly, such visits are disheartening to Chinese citizens, the ultimate agents of change. Australia can set a better diplomatic example by refusing to coordinate state visits to China so long as conditions remain unchanged. The Australian government can also utilise its normative influence to encourage allies to do the same. By publicly calling out Beijing for its human rights violations, this will send a clear message to the CCP while emboldening victims to enact change. 

Australia is also reticent of China’s growing influence in the Indo Pacific region. In response, DFAT is interested in identifying new ways to promote Australia as a partner of choice for development and trade in the region. Promoting a compelling, human-rights respecting alternative to China will enable Australia to differentiate itself from the CCP and gain greater support from its regional partners. 

Trade Considerations 

China and Australia have a strong bilateral trade relationship which should be a key consideration when taking any political action against China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports, currently accounting for 27.4% of Australia’s total world trade.  Noting that China is such a significant trading partner, Australia finds it challenging to implement trade sanctions as this may disrupt the country’s economic prosperity. 

Trade has been used by the United States government as an important lever to sanction Chinese imports from Xinjiang. The U.S. now screens products that have originated from Xinjiang to detect goods which are potentially linked to state-sponsored forced labour. In September 2020, the U.S. implemented an executive order blocking Chinese imports such as cotton, garments, hair products and electronics from the region. Amnesty International recommends Australia explore a similar policy of screening imports in order to deter modern slavery.

So far, Australia has been unwilling to take action against China’s repression. This was evident in 2019, when Foreign Minister Payne described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘disturbing,’ but simultaneously refused to implement sanctions against China. Australia’s inability to turn rhetoric into action against China demonstrates a complacency that goes against Australia’s interests and values. 

Adopting a tough stance on the CCP poses significant risks to Australian trade. However, if Australia can cooperate with other countries to address China’s blatant disregard for human rights, the international balance of power will shift. Though China can endure unilateral sanctions from Australia, its economy cannot take on the entire world.

Conclusion

Adopting these recommendations will enable Australia to promote its international leadership on human rights and build credibility within the Indo-Pacific region. Though unilateral actions by Australia will not enact instant change in China’s behavior, its example will encourage others to follow suit. This will heighten the financial and political costs of China’s oppression. Amnesty International hopes that this pressure will eventually result in an end to China’s systemic religious and ethnic abuse of Uyghur Muslims. 


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