The document by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee of the House of Commons is at risk of being ignored by “Sinophile” Boris Johnson.
by Ruth Ingram
Mahmutjan and his father were wrenched from sleep one December night four years ago, hooded, frog marched over the ice and snow, and bundled into a van. His mother and brother were left standing distraught in their night clothes on the doorstep, as police padlocked their home and taped over the entrance.
Silence descended for one year. And then out of nowhere the phone rang. The husband had passed a Mandarin exam, and this was his reward; a single call home. He was alive. Another year passed and Mahmutjan could come home once a month. Then it was once every three months. Cryptic notes, poems and songs on Chinese social media showed a deeply depressed, melancholy young man torn from family and friends and longing for home. This was not the young man they all knew.
Suddenly he was assembling telephones in a factory somewhere, but no one knew where. His visits home became fewer. His social media posts rarer.
His story is not unique. This scenario has become the norm for many hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and Turkic people across Xinjiang. First, they are “voluntarily re-educated,” surveilled 24/7. and indoctrinated. “Graduates” are then either channeled extra-judicially into the prison system or onto the production lines of famous western brands.
From the shirts on our backs to the phones in our hands, from the movies we watch to the trainers on our feet, our shopping habits are deeply compromised and inextricably enmeshed with slavery in North West China, according to a UK government committee set up last September to investigate supply chains from the region.
A complicated relationship with China has become increasingly tangled and fraught last week with the publication of this and another report which have upped the moral stakes in the bright new world of so-called Global Britain as she strides into a post-Europe trading environment.
The hand wringing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee of the House of Commons condemning forced labor and the companies that peddle it, has spun Beijing into a flurry of venomous threats and menaces. At the same time, a tranche of mixed messages in the Integrated Review, the UK’s most fundamental evaluation of its defense and foreign policies in half a century, have garnered charges of hypocrisy, meaningless rhetoric and naivety, amid accusations that the UK, whilst on one hand calling Beijing out as a strategic threat, is conversely playing straight into its hands by rewarding that very same threat.
The BEIS Committee conclusions that forced labor is rife in Xinjiang have triggered a volley of outrage from a CCP minister at the UK Chinese embassy in London. Ambassador Ma Hui called the allegations “frivolous and preposterous” in his Twitter feed. Responding to the implications of wider human rights abuses affecting Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the minister, warned that the “farces aimed to discredit and smear China” would make the UK a “laughing stock.”
Mentioning Adrian Zenz, a key compiler of evidence of slavery in the supply chains, Ma Hui threatened that both he, and the “evil forces behind him,” would “have to face the condemnation of conscience and the reckoning of justice.”
A variety of witnesses were called for the enquiry, including Boohoo, H&M, TikTok, The North Face, and Nike. The toothlessness of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and grave lapses in due diligence were all to blame for a failure to prioritize human rights throughout supply chains, the BEIS report found.
Nus Ghani MP, lead member of the BEIS Committee, was “deeply concerned and disappointed,” by the lack of urgency and commitment in tackling the issue. This “is both necessary and overdue,” she urged, in preventing UK businesses from profiting from the forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Customers should be able to guarantee that their supply chains are free from forced labor, and be reassured that every effort was being made to stamp out profiteering from these abuses.
Whilst the BEIS report agonizes on behalf of its government over human rights in China, the contradictions inherent in Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review, titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” and reviewing defense, development and foreign policy, stall on the moral high ground of condemning those very same atrocities but deeply embroiled in the murky waters of profit, vested interests and nay saying.
Human rights activist and IPAC (Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China) coordinator, Luke de Pulford, commenting on the Review, points out in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph that UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab only three months ago had condemned trade with countries abusing human rights “well below the level of genocide.” On the subject of Uyghur human rights abuses, he had said, “Barbarism, we all hoped, was lost to another era.”
In a leaked conversation with officials in March however, he had been overheard speaking to officials saying, “If we restrict [trade] to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we are not going to do many deals with the growth markets of the future.”
Assessing the Integrated Review, de Pulford has found identical inconsistencies woven into its fabric. “The Review tells us loftily that China is the UK’s biggest threat to economic security,” he said, but in the same breath it boasts, “We will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, whilst ensuring our national security and values are protected,” adding that recently Boris Johnson admitted to being a “fervent Sinophile,” determined to press ahead with ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties.”
He asked, “Is the government seriously suggesting that we will succeed in addressing our biggest threat by investing more in it?”
De Pulford pointed out that the CCP was not blind to the hypocrisies of the west. The USA on one hand whilst dealing significant body blows to China in sanctions and trade embargoes, even calling atrocities meted out to Uyghurs a genocide, continued to increase its imports from the Uyghur region by 116% in 2020. “We don’t really mean what we say, and China is calling us out,” he said.
MP Stephen Kinnock criticized the Integrated Review as lacking a coherent strategy on China. “The government talks tough on security, but allows Chinese investment in UK nuclear,” he said on his Twitter feed. “ It defends human rights, but won’t implement Magnitsky sanctions or back the genocide amendment.”
He highlighted the “chasm between rhetoric and reality that lies at the heart of the government’s Integrated Review.”
The China Research Group, set up by Conservative Party members to promote “fresh thinking” on all things China, whilst tentatively welcoming the Integrated Review, challenged the government to “make a reality of the idea of trading with China while ensuring national security and values are protected.” Members urged other democracies to pull together and “take a long-term view of the threat to our living standards posed by the regime.”
But MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the UK parliament’s Defense committee warned, “The UK’s strategic ambiguity on China will continue to China’s benefit.” Ellwood compared the failure to tackle the threat posed by China to that posed by the Nazis in the last century. “There is certainly a 1930s feel to the world at the moment, with weak global institutions, economic recession, rising authoritarian powers that are militarizing, and lack of westerly cohesion,” he told Business Insider.
But presenting the Review last week to Parliament, Boris Johnson was convinced that it offered a “clear-eyed” approach to UK-China relations. He said the government needed to strike a “balance” because trade with China is worth £81 billion annually.