PRC Sanctions Critics of Xinjiang Policy, Fans Nationalist Boycott

Earlier last week, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States announced joint sanctions on the Chinese government for its Xinjiang policies. In turn, the PRC sanctioned a number of European Union politicians, diplomats, and academics. The sanctions coincided with a state-backed boycott of foreign brands that publicly stated they no longer use Xinjiang-sourced cotton due to allegations of forced labor. H&M became the primary target of online ire after the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account resurfaced one of the company’s earlier statements. On March 26, the PRC announced a new round of sanctions, this time targeted against individuals in the United Kingdom, including politicians, lawyers, human rights groups, and academics. At CNN, James Griffiths reported on the details of the sanctions:

Those sanctioned include five members of Parliament — Tom Tugendhat, Iain Duncan Smith, Neil O’Brien, Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani — and two members of the House of Lords, David Alton and Helena Kennedy, as well as academic Joanne Smith Finley and barrister Geoffrey Nice.

Four entities were also named by Beijing: the China Research Group, Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Uyghur Tribunal, and Essex Court Chambers, a leading London law firm.

[…] Those individuals concerned and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. Their property in China will be frozen, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them, according to the foreign ministry statement.

The UK’s ambassador to China has also been summoned by Beijing, to lodge what it described as “solemn representations, expressing firm opposition and strong condemnation.” [Source]

Reuters reported on the British government’s reactions to China’s counter-sanctions:

Britain condemned the move as an attempt by Beijing to stifle criticism, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying he stood in solidarity with those affected and foreign minister Dominic Raab saying he would summon China’s ambassador in London.

Those sanctioned “are performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.

[…] British luxury fashion brand Burberry has in recent days been hit by a Chinese backlash over Western accusations of abuses in Xinjiang. [Source]

At The Washington Post, Gerry Shih reported on the nationalist mood incited and directed by the government:

China’s sanctions are largely tit-for-tat, but they differ from those announced by Britain and Europe in one significant regard: They also target relatives. U.S. sanctions announced last year under the Global Magnitsky Act — such as the one against Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo — do punish officials’ immediate relatives, but British and European sanctions target only individuals.

Western sanctions have also not targeted Chinese research institutions.

[…] Chinese officials didn’t hold back this week as they reached for acutely nationalistic notes: Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying compared the coordinated Western sanctions to imperial powers joining forces to attack the late Qing Dynasty and declared: “Today’s China is not what it was 120 years ago.”

At a press briefing on Thursday, she held up a black-and-white 19th-century photo of enslaved people toiling in an American cotton field, and then a color photo of a tractor in Xinjiang under blue skies, an example of mechanized production that she said was responsible for 70 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton. [Source]

The unrestrained outpouring of support for Xinjiang had unintended consequences. Some Chinese Weibo users seized the opportunity offered by relaxed controls on speech to focus their concern on the people of Xinjiang instead of its cotton. CDT’s John Chan and Anne Henochowicz translated a portion of their commentary, much of which was later deleted by censors:

@theRKenshin: I think, even with all the super topics on Xinjiang, the proletariat masses have a lot of love for Xinjiang, and they don’t have to hide it in pinyin. So take this opportunity to support Xinjiang, to resolve all the problems our Xinjiang compatriots encounter in other cities and provinces. You netizens who love Xinjiang, I think you don’t just love material things, you also love people. If you love them, then at least let them safely book into hotels and rent places to live. [Source]

Online censorship was not limited to comments posted in support of Xinjiang. At Bloomberg News, Vlad Savov discovered that H&M stores had disappeared from online maps and are now only visible on Google Maps, which is blocked:

Users in Beijing reported that any searches for H&M in either Apple Maps on the iPhone or Baidu Maps returned no results. Competing retailers, such as Uniqlo outlets, continued showing as usual. A similar search in Google Maps showed over a dozen H&M locations in the capital or its vicinity, though that service is only accessible to locals via the use of a virtual private network that skirts a state ban on products from the Alphabet Inc. unit.

[…] It’s unclear who’s driving the apparent removal of H&M stores from mapping apps, which are operated by privately run enterprises that have recently come under increased scrutiny from regulators. China also has a vast apparatus for censoring online content and its so-called Great Firewall restricts access to websites and apps from global companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. Social media is policed, with posts about controversial topics blocked or restricted from view. [Source]

At the New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee and Keith Bradsher discussed whether the calls for a boycott would end up having a material impact:

It isn’t clear what the long-term impact might be on Western companies that depend on China to make or buy their products. On Thursday, there was still a steady stream of shoppers at several popular H&M and Nike outlets in Shanghai and Beijing. Previous state media-driven pressure campaigns against companies like Apple, Starbucks and Volkswagen failed to dent Chinese demand for their products.

[…] For decades, foreign companies operating in China have been largely wary of appearing critical of the Chinese government. And in recent years, several of them have been besieged by a growing army of nationalistic online users, who have been ready to pounce on the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. All have been quick to apologize, and emerged largely unscathed.

[…] On Thursday, a mall in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, shut an H&M outlet, urging the company to apologize formally to people in the region. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, workers dismantled the company’s sign from a store.

“I don’t expect this to die down,” said Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the United Nations working group on business and human rights. “This is a different trajectory and a different era.” [Source]

The Chinese government’s decision to attack H&M online might provide ammunition for those calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. At The Economist, Gady Epstein wrote about how Olympic sponsors have stayed quiet on the persecution of the Uyghurs, and activists’ attempts to hold them accountable in the public eye:

[…] Companies that are sponsoring the games will face growing pressure. Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress, a group based in Germany, says she and other activists are approaching these firms “one by one” and will, if necessary, “publicly name and shame” them. The campaigners have started with Airbnb, an American home-rental firm. It is one of the ioc’s main Olympic sponsors, which also include Coca-Cola, Samsung and Visa. Airbnb signed its sponsorship deal in November 2019, when the new gulag in Xinjiang was already well-known.

On March 23rd more than 190 groups representing Tibetan, Uyghur and other China-related causes issued a public letter to Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s boss. It called on him to withdraw his firm’s sponsorship or “risk being tainted” by association with the games. Contacted by The Economist, Airbnb did not respond specifically to the letter or comment on the Olympics. A spokeswoman referred to a statement, issued by the firm in January, that acknowledged some Airbnb hosts in China had violated company policy by rejecting ethnic-minority customers. The statement said rental listings that appeared discriminatory would be removed.

A similar letter has been sent to Grant Reid, the chief executive of Mars Wrigley, which will also soon be published. In December 2019 the sweetmaker reached a deal with Beijing’s Olympic committee that Snickers, a peanut-filled Mars Wrigley product, would be the “official chocolate” of the games. The firm did not respond to a request for comment. Executives at Coca-Cola and Visa who work on social-responsibility issues also did not reply when invited to discuss their firms’ Olympic deals. [Source]

The boycotts and sanctions are simply the background to a larger story. Xinjiang’s Uyghurs have been subject to a campaign of repression, detention, and surveillance directed by the Chinese state. Over one million Uyghurs were believed to be detained in “re-education” camps. At the same time that the boycotts were occurring, CNN’s Rebecca Wright, David Culver, and Ben Westcott tracked down two Uyghur children who were separated from their parents during the crackdown, and remain stuck in Xinjiang to this day:

Mamutjan’s wife Muherrem took their daughter and son from Malaysia back to the region in western China to get a new passport in December 2015. They remain trapped there, he said, caught up in the sweeping government crackdown against Muslim minorities that has reportedly seen up to 2 million people arbitrarily detained in vast camps across Xinjiang.

[…] Alkan Akad, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said the separation of parents and children isn’t all accidental. In some cases, it can be a deliberate tactic by authorities.

“The Chinese government wants to gain a leverage over the Uyghur population residing abroad, so that they would be able to stop them from engaging in activism and speaking out for their families and their relatives in Xinjiang,” said Akad, who authored the new report. [Source]

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