China’s lucrative market and economic opportunities have kept the West distracted from—or tolerant of—its human rights violations, but 2020 saw people waking up to the severity of the matter and the communist regime’s broader threat to the world, an online conference heard.
Experts on human rights and international affairs came together on Jan. 14 in a webinar event titled A Way Forward, Part II: Defending Human Rights in China, to review China’s rights situation over the past year and explore ways to prevent future atrocities.
“We are critical of and anti-the Chinese Communist Party regime’s repression, but we are not anti-China or the Chinese people,” said Benedict Rogers, the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch.
“It is precisely because I love the people of China and the culture [that] I want China as a great and ancient civilization to succeed, that I want the people of China to have the human rights that we, in our countries, take for granted and that they have too long been denied, but that they deserved,” he said.
The event was held by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) as part of a series of discussions about the Chinese regime’s rights violations, such as the ongoing persecution campaign against Falun Gong adherents that began in 1999, as well as the repression and abuse of Uyghur Muslims and Mongolians.
It also touched on Beijing’s increasingly aggressive economic and security policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the world at large, as well as how governments in the free world and the United Nations have been complacent or even complicit in allowing these practices to go unchecked.
Rogers said it’s time for countries to stand together and unite against the CCP.
“I think it’s time for unity. I think the free world needs to stand together,” he said, noting that “it’s also time for real, concrete action.”
“It’s very clear that strong statements—which we’ve seen more of, and they’re welcome—but strong statements alone no longer cut it.”
The Devil’s Bargain: China’s Money for The World’s Silence
Rights infractions have existed in China as far back as the formation of the communist-controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the webinar heard.
Upon joining the United Nations in 1971, the PRC reaffirmed its acceptance of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It subsequently signed on to an assortment of human rights-related conventions, according to Dean Baxendale, co-chair of the panel and chair of the China Democracy Foundation.
“Despite China’s status as a signatory on these conventions and its supposed acceptance of the UN rights doctrine, the Chinese Communist Party has established itself amongst the worst human rights violators in the world,” he said.
The acquiescence of international organizations and major economic and political entities has allowed China to get away with its human rights violations, the webinar heard. In March 2020, for example, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute named 83 global brands—including Amazon, Apple, and Nike—to have been profiting directly or indirectly from the forced labour of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
“For many years, Canada and our supposed allies, which share values, seem to be have been sizing up the devil’s bargain—diplomatically trading off the economic and commerce opportunity with Beijing for our silence on well-documented, systemic abuse of ethnic and religious minorities within Chinese borders, as well as the suppression of free speech and civil liberties,” Baxendale said.
Global Awakening and Collaboration
In 2020, the Chinese regime’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its abuse of Uyghurs and Mongolians served as a wake-up call for people around the world, the webinar heard. In particular, its use of surveillance technology and the export of “techno-authoritarianism” are realistic threats for everyone in the modern digital society.
“People who were willing to turn a blind eye to China’s terrible human rights practices within China itself are now having to confront that China is trying to export a bunch of those practices,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, vice-chair of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission.
Bartholomew said that as more people come to recognize Beijing’s threats, human rights communities will have more opportunities to push for tougher corporate social responsibility and national security policies.
“Since August 2018 when the UN acknowledged that there were up to 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in what the Chinese called re-education camps, a growing number of courageous individuals have been working towards exposing the truth of life behind their walls,” said Rahima Mahmut, UK project director of the World Uyghur Congress and adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
On Jan. 12, 2021, Canada and the UK announced measures that aim to prevent goods made by forced labour in Xinjiang from entering the global supply chain. Similarly, U.S. President Donald Trump banned all imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang on Jan. 13.
“We welcome the move, it’s a small step, the very first step from UK and Canada,” Mahmut said. “We do feel that sanctions, especially clear sanctions on individuals and the companies that [are] abusing the rights of the Uyghurs, is very important.”
The Way Forward: Global Actions, Alliances, and Sanctions
The panel also explored proposals for a coordinated global response—which has been easier said that done, according to Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow in the Asia Program, German Marshall Fund.
“We have seen more and more people in various countries across the world waking up to the challenge. Nonetheless, finding good policy on China often feels like one step forward, two steps back,” Ohlberg said.
The panelists provided ideas to help counter the CCP’s internal human rights abuses as well as the export of its authoritarian agenda.
European Parliament Member Reinhard Butikofer, chair of the delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China and co-chair of IPAC, advocated for an “alliance of democracies” which would go beyond mere hollow organizational promises but lead to practical efforts between democratic nations to“have each other’s back” in countering the CCP.
“This willingness to not tolerate China’s efforts to separate and divide European and other democratic nations, and to go to them one by one, I think that is a practical necessity apart from holding a big conference,” he said. “If we don’t live the solidarity between the democracies in everyday life, it doesn’t exist.”
UK MP Stephen Kinnock, shadow minister for Asia for the Labour Party, proposed two “strategic pillars” the UK can adopt. One is to reduce the dependence on China’s supply chains by building its own technology base, and the another is to strengthen its alliances with other democratic countries.
Specifically, Kinnock said the UK should include CCP members on its Magnitsky sanctions list. He said the UK’s Modern Slavery Act is not strong enough to enforce human rights due diligence by corporations and supply chains; instead, he suggested legislation such as the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law, which can directly sanction companies.
Law professor Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister and now chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and co-chair of IPAC Canada, listed 10 ways action can be taken against China’s human rights violations.
- Support the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China;
- Establish a parallel intergovernmental alliance of democracies to secure justice and stability;
- Enhance the parliamentary determination to label the mass atrocities against Uyghurs as genocide;
- Initiate global support for Magnitsky sanctions;
- Take action to prohibit the import of products made by slave labour and hold Beijing accountable for mass atrocities;
- Call for the UN to appoint an international, independent, and impartial investigation of mass atrocities in Xinjiang;
- Invoke legal remedies to hold Beijing accountable for the spread of the COVID-19 virus;
- Institute an immigration and refugee safe-harbour initiative for Hong Kongers and Uyghurs fleeing persecution;
- Speak out against the export of China’s surveillance of overseas Uyghurs and Falun Gong adherents;
- Mobilize the International Bar Association and the American Bar Association to expose the regime’s assault on the rule of law and on rights lawyers.
Teng Biao, a lawyer with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in Massachusetts, said the CCP threat “is not just a Chinese issue, it’s a global issue.”
“If the world continues to appease the Chinese communists there will be a disaster for everyone and the western values and liberal democracy and open society will be in danger,” he said. “We should fundamentally change our thinking on the Chinese Communist Party.”
Roughly 6,000 people watched the webinar live online, according to moderator and MLI senior fellow Charles Burton. Questions posed by viewers reflected an eagerness to learn about what young people, the grassroots, and the Chinese diaspora can do to help stop the CCP’s ongoing rights abuses.
“China’s human rights ultimately concern us all,” Ohlberg said.