Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 1 March 2021


Biden pressed for tough response to China’s repression of Uighurs

Uighur protesters who have not heard from their families in Xinjiang hold a demonstration against China in Istanbul, Turkey © TOLGA BOZOGLU/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

US lawmakers and human rights activists are pressing Joe Biden to make a tough response to China’s repression of 1m Uighurs in Xinjiang, which Antony Blinken, secretary of state, has called “genocide”.

Republicans have introduced a slew of resolutions calling on the International Olympic Committee to rebid the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Some are urging the US president and the US Olympic Committee to boycott the games unless they are moved to another country.

The clamour for action has been joined by likely Republican 2024 presidential contenders, including former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Asked this week if Biden would participate in the games, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said: “There hasn’t been a final decision.”

Activists have also urged Biden to take concrete measures to respond to the persecution of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority who are being detained in camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

China has grown infinitely more repressive since [2008] and you can bet it will put on another impressive show to distract from the genocide

David Shullman, International Republican Institute

In a letter, two dozen rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Uyghur Human Rights Project, urged the president not to send high-profile or senior officials to the games because of the abuses and the IOC’s “unwillingness” to carry out due diligence.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said there was a more vocal debate about a boycott because the human rights situation was “exponentially worse” than when China last held the Olympics in 2008.

“There’s a higher level of awareness about not wanting to legitimise the Chinese government around something like the Olympics,” she said. “They’re thinking of ways to cheer on US athletes without cheering on the Chinese government.”

The pressure comes as a growing number of countries raise concern. The Canadian parliament recently voted 266-0 to call the situation in Xinjiang “genocide”, although prime minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstained.

The Dutch parliament passed a similar motion, but prime minister Mark Rutte and his party voted against it. Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, this week told the UN Human Rights Council that the abuses were on an “industrial scale”.

After raising the issue in his first call with Xi Jinping, Biden said the Chinese leader understood there would be “repercussions”. One US official said they were reviewing the Xinjiang situation and had noted how other countries, including Canada, were dealing with the situation.

“It is crucial that we join together with partners around the world to send a clear, unified message that the human rights abuses being committed in Xinjiang are nothing short of genocide,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. He added that it was “imperative” to hold Beijing accountable and to “not allow the Chinese government to divide us”.

David Shullman, a China expert at the International Republican Institute, said one question was whether Biden would try to co-ordinate action with allies to force concessions from the Chinese government.

“China’s success in turning the 2008 Olympics into a ‘soft power’ celebration of China’s arrival on the global stage despite now forgotten protests and calls for boycott around Beijing’s repression in Tibet and other abuses should be instructive,” he said. “China has grown infinitely more repressive since then, and you can bet it will put on another impressive show to distract from the genocide.”

Michael Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican congressman who supports a boycott if the IOC does not rebid the games, said Biden should at a minimum underscore with the IOC the contradiction between the ideals incorporated in the Olympic charter and the abuses in Xinjiang.

He added that there was support in Congress for a range of measures, including “bipartisan enthusiasm for targeted sanctions, whether on the governor of a province or a Chinese Communist party official”.

Republican senator Marco Rubio and Merkley are pushing legislation that would require companies to ensure they are not using forced labour from Xinjiang. A similar bill, which was backed by progressive Democrats such as Ilhan Omar, passed 406-3 in the House last year.

While the boycott calls have come from Republicans, there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the forced-labour bill, which would require companies to certify that they are not using workers who are under duress.

“Anytime you have Ilhan Omar and Marco Rubio effectively saying the same thing, you have the foundation for a bipartisan proposal,” Gallagher said.

Ashley Craig, a trade lawyer and partner at Venable, said Biden would probably take action on the trade front by banning the import of more products from Xinjiang, after the Trump administration in January moved to prohibit imports of tomatoes and goods made with cotton from Xinjiang.

But he said China was highly unlikely to be cowed by any measures from the US given the scale of the detention programme in Xinjiang.

“I don’t see the Chinese government substantially backing down. Look at the activity in terms of the camps’ infrastructure. It would have to be a massive boycott, with everyone backing it, to have an impact.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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