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A Uighur woman picking up school children rides past a picture showing China's President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uighur elders at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region, September 20, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

China presents one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges for Germany’s relatively new chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Yet judging by his comments at this year’s Munich Security Conference, which took place in February, he has yet to grapple with the seriousness of the situation.

The Chinese government is in the midst of the worst period of repression since the murderous suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in 1989. Although President Xi Jinping presents himself as a strong, confident leader, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that people across China cannot participate in unapproved public life or mobilize any challenge to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. His government has silenced independent journalists, censored the internet and social media, crushed civil society, and stifled lawyers who attempt to enforce human rights or to hold the government to the rule of law.

The persecution has been especially severe in Xinjiang, where Beijing has arbitrarily detained one million Uighur and other Turkic Muslims, subjecting them to forced indoctrination designed to compel them to abandon their religion, culture, and language. The Chinese government has installed a highly intrusive surveillance state in Xinjiang to help determine whom to detain. In many cases, people have been detained for doing nothing more than growing a beard, attending a mosque, or traveling or contacting family members abroad.

Crimes Against Humanity

Some Uighurs are placed in a program of forced labor. The circumstances of this placement are unclear, but the Chinese government speaks of people “graduating” from the detention centers, which it euphemistically refers to as “vocational training centers.” Forced labor has also been found in “pairing assistance” or “poverty alleviation” programs, designed by the authorities to match a demand for labor with a supply, with Uighur workers coercively sent to work in other parts of China. This forced labor potentially infects any exports from Xinjiang, which is known foremost for its cotton, tomatoes, and the polysilicon used for solar panels. These serious human rights violations—part of a widespread and systemic attack on the population—amount to crimes against humanity, committed so far with utter impunity.

Other ethnic groups—notably in Tibet and inner Mongolia—have also faced intense repression, and the crackdown extends throughout China. The Chinese government claims that the people support its rule. But when many people in Hong Kong—the one part of China where people had been free to voice their dissent—joined large protests against the CCP’s dictatorship, Beijing responded by effectively ripping up the “one country, two systems” agreement for Hong Kong and crushing its freedoms.

To make matters worse, the Chinese government has sought to undermine international human rights institutions, claiming that each country’s government (not its people) should be able to determine its own path regardless of binding legal obligations. It often suggests that achieving economic growth suffices to satisfy a government’s human rights obligations, without accountability to its people in developing economic priorities or even an assessment of how economic growth is allocated among the people of the country to satisfy their economic and social rights.

Moreover, even outside of China, Beijing threatens many people who criticize it, using its global surveillance tools, baseless prosecution of foreigners, and economic retaliation. In just one example, it imposed substantial tariffs on many Australian exports to China because the Australian government had the audacity to promote an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, challenging the Chinese government’s cover-up and lies.

Dependency on Exports

It has not been easy for the German government—or indeed any government—to navigate such difficult terrain. On the one hand, Germany’s voice on human rights is important, both in its own right and as a key member of the European Union. On the other hand, Germany’s economy depends on exports, and China is one of its largest customers. Despite the occasional misstep, the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel had shown that it was possible to confront Beijing’s severe repression. Chancellor Scholz can and should do even better.

The nature of the Chinese government provides guidance on how to address its repression. Because the CCP refuses to submit to free and fair elections to establish its legitimacy, and because it seeks to avoid any international accountability for its actions, it seeks to neutralize opponents and avoid international condemnation. Beyond securing China’s access to resources, buying allies is a major purpose of Xi Jinping’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

That background suggests that international efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for its serious human rights violations, by depriving Xi Jinping of the impunity he expects, can play a significant role in pressuring Beijing to curb its repression. But who would risk such an effort if it yields economic retaliation of the sort experienced by Australia? This is where Germany has provided important leadership.

Beginning in 2019, several Western governments including Germany started organizing periodic joint statements at the United Nations decrying abuses in Xinjiang, during sessions of either the Human Rights Council in Geneva or the General Assembly in New York. The idea was that a combined voice would be more powerful than states speaking individually—and that there would be safety in numbers against Beijing’s retaliation.

Germany Plays Key Role

At first the fear was palpable: During the initial effort in Geneva, 25 countries including Germany agreed to sign such a statement, but no one at first dared to read it out loud at the Human Rights Council, as is traditional for such joint statements. Over time, however, that began to change—with Germany playing a key role. When China’s rights record came up for review at the Human Rights Council (as part of a periodic review of all UN member states), Germany was one of five governments backing an event, led by the United States, to shine a spotlight on Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang.

In October 2020, Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Christoph Heusgen, played a central role in rallying an unprecedented (at the time) 39 governments to speak out against the severe repression in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. In June 2021, a Canadian-led effort in Geneva, which Germany actively supported, secured 44 signatories to a statement of condemnation on Xinjiang.

Beijing predictably would respond to each group condemnation with a counterstatement, but the human rights record of many signatories—the tyrants and autocrats of the world—undermined the statement’s credibility. There have also been questions about whether all the “signatories” had actually agreed to endorse the Chinese statements. In 2019, one country asked China to remove it from the list of supporters because it had never pledged to sign. In some cases, Beijing would not even reveal the names behind the declared number of signatories.

As the number of governments condemning Beijing’s repression mounts, and as those willing to defend Beijing diminishes—especially among Muslim-majority nations such as Turkey that are unhappy with the crushing of Islam in Xinjiang—support is growing for a formal UN resolution on the Chinese government’s repression. The effort to shame Beijing for its conduct in Xinjiang should increase once the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issues her long-awaited report on the human rights violations being committed there. Sadly, that report has now been further delayed by Bachelet’s agreement to a “visit” to China that apparently falls significantly short of the “unfettered investigation” that she rightly demanded.

UN Efforts

The common wisdom notwithstanding, Beijing is far from omnipotent at the United Nations. China in October 2020 sought a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The previous time it ran, four years earlier, it received the most votes of any country running from the Asia-Pacific region. This time, it received the fewest votes of any Asia-Pacific government that secured a seat. Only Saudi Arabia received fewer votes and was denied a seat.

When it came to electing the president of the UN Human Rights Council in January 2021, it was the turn of the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese government, along with Russia and Saudi Arabia, favored a diplomat from abusive Bahrain, but that candidate lost overwhelmingly to Fiji’s highly respected ambassador in Geneva.

Also in 2021, China’s attempt to embarrass its critics with a resolution on colonialism backfired when two British amendments on persecution and forced assimilation—an obvious reference to Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs and other minorities—were narrowly adopted. In addition, China withdrew a resolution on “realizing the right to a better life” (another effort to evade the concrete requirements of international human rights law), fearing it would not have the support to pass.

This history of Beijing’s failed or compromised efforts to undermine the UN human rights machinery shows that efforts to stand up to its repression are hardly quixotic—indeed, that coordinated efforts of this sort should be pursued more often. The German government has often done just that.

In the UN Security Council, for example, where Germany most recently occupied a seat in 2019-2020, Berlin repeatedly challenged Russian and Chinese vetoes on vital resolutions to advance and protect rights, including in Syria. While China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would have vetoed any effort to take it to task for its own violations, Germany played a central role in organizing a separate virtual event on Xinjiang in May 2021.

The Chinese government clearly felt the reputational sting of the virtual event, as illustrated by its extraordinary step of issuing “disinvitations”—perhaps better understood as threats against those who might join the event. Nonetheless, an extraordinary 51 states showed up at the ambassadorial level. So did a Chinese diplomat, who insisted on speaking and, when given the microphone, could only bluster, revealing how little Beijing had to say in defense of its extraordinary mistreatment of Turkic Muslims.

Investment Deal Misstep

Germany, with UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen (now head of the Munich Security Conference) at the helm, had become such a relentless and principled voice for the Turkic communities of Xinjiang, as well as other victims of Beijing’s repression, that at the end of Germany’s two-year Security Council term, a Chinese diplomat announced, “Good riddance!” My view was, “Good work!” Chancellor Scholz should treat such denunciation as a badge of honor and continue the defense of human rights that gave rise to it.

Outside of the United Nations, however, German policy toward China sometimes has fallen short. There have been positive steps: In 2018, Chancellor Merkel secured the release from China of Liu Xia, the widow of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. But in December 2020 at the end of Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, Merkel was so eager to secure a European Union investment deal with China—as were French President Emanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—that Berlin settled for a ploy to ignore the enormous problem of forced labor in Xinjiang. Rather than insist on an end to this illegal and abusive practice as a condition of a deal, the German government, representing EU leaders, settled for a pledge from Beijing to consider acceding to the International Labor Organization (ILO) treaties on forced labor. Beijing didn’t pledge to comply with the treaties, or even to ratify them, but only to think about accepting the treaties someday. Ultimately, Beijing has said that it will ratify the treaties, but it has said nothing about compliance.

When I asked Chancellor Scholz at the recent Munich Security Conference about the proposed investment deal with China, he cited the reference to ILO standards in defense of the deal. But that ignores how perfunctory the reference was. Indeed, even the ILO has expressed “deep concerns” about the Chinese government’s use of forced labor. 

For now, the deal is stymied. In 2021, the EU, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada responded to Beijing’s grave violations in Xinjiang by jointly imposing targeted sanctions on various Chinese officials and entities. The Chinese government, in turn, sanctioned EU ambassadors, European lawmakers, and European organizations. The European Parliament then made clear that it rejected the forced-labor subterfuge upon which the proposed EU-China investment deal was based.

Chancellor Scholz should insist that the deal not be resurrected without an actual end to the forced labor of Uighurs. EU companies should not be investing, and potentially profiting from, such blatant abuse.

In responding to my question in Munich, the chancellor also noted Germany’s new law on supply chains, which requires companies of a certain size to conduct due diligence to avoid complicity in human rights abuses. But Germany can do better than that when it comes to the Uighurs, particularly given the difficulty of knowing anything at all about supply chains reaching into Xinjiang because of Beijing’s obstruction of independent monitoring.

This past December, the United States adopted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which presumptively bars imports from Xinjiang. A company might still demonstrate that its supply chain is clean, but given the opacity of supply chains in Xinjiang, that is difficult if not impossible. As Beijing begins to feel the economic pressure from a possible cutoff of US imports from Xinjiang, it will face serious economic pressure to curb the use of Uighur forced labor.

Ending Forced Labor

Chancellor Scholz should endorse similar legislation for Germany—and the entire EU—to hasten the day when this horrible labor-rights abuse ends. He could begin by encouraging the Bundestag to hold further hearings on the issue, which would quickly demonstrate that it is impossible for German companies still importing from Xinjiang to avoid complicity in forced labor.

At the UN Human Rights Council, the German government should take the next logical step, based on the growing number of governments willing to challenge Chinese repression, and rally its EU partners to seek a resolution to establish a UN inquiry into Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang, as well as the ruthless crackdown on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and the persecution of dissenters across China. It is shameful, given the severity of its repression, that the Chinese government has never been the subject of a critical resolution at the Human Rights Council. Given that gaping oversight, some 50 UN experts asked the Council in 2020 to establish a standing investigative and reporting mechanism for China.

The German government, ideally working with its EU allies, should also impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials and entities that are responsible for serious abuses against the Uighurs or others in China. Berlin should resist treating Beijing’s periodic willingness to conduct a human rights dialogue—typically a low-key affair in the recesses of the foreign ministry—as a substitute for public pressure. And more fundamentally, the German government should help to develop a comprehensive strategy, with clear goals, to curb Beijing’s oppression at home and its efforts to undermine international human rights institutions.

At a time when Beijing rebuts German criticism by pointing out the country’s past history of mass killings, mere rhetoric—even from the highest levels of the new government—is unlikely to compel change in China. Instead, it is important to raise the price for serious human rights violations, through the various methods outlined above. In important respects, Germany has already been moving in this direction. The Scholz government should extend and deepen those efforts. As Beijing discovers that its threats and enticements are not working to diminish the growing coalition of nations willing to challenge human rights violations under Xi Jinping’s dictatorial rule—a coalition that German diplomats have played a central role in organizing—it will provide the best chance we have of moving Beijing in a more rights-respecting direction.

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