There has been a growing backlash against China’s mass internment and repression of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group in the western region of Xinjiang. While most Western democracies were already on record condemning China’s policies, few countries had taken concrete steps to sanction Chinese officials and entities for these abuses. That now appears to be starting to change.

A Concerted Push for Accountability on Human Rights

A coordinated push by several major democracies to hold China accountable for its human rights record in Xinjiang indicates that a more multilateral stance may be developing. Things changed significantly on March 22, when the EU, UK, Canada, and the United States imposed coordinated sanctions against four Chinese officials linked to Xinjiang abuses. While the United States had previously sanctioned Chinese officials over Xinjiang, these latest coordinated sanctions signified a new step for the EU: it was the first time in three decades, since the Tiananmen Square massacre, that the EU had penalized China for human rights violations. The unusual level of collaboration also seems to have caught China off guard. It represents the first salvo of a smart strategic turn for the United States and its allies.

Rachel Kleinfeld
Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security, and governance in post-conflict countries, fragile states, and states in transition.
More >

While the latest round of sanctions is largely symbolic, they are nonetheless a potent symbol. Three days after the United States, the EU, Canada, and the UK acted, Japan showed signs of movement. A group of lawmakers in Tokyo declared that they had formed “a cross-party alliance to craft legislation to enable [Magnitsky-style] sanctions over human rights abuses,” while Japan’s ruling party will simultaneously examine the Uyghur issue. (The Magnitsky Act refers to a U.S. law designed to punish foreigners for perceived corruption or abuses—a law named after a Russian tax auditor who died in official custody after investigating government misconduct.)

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand, which lack laws that allow for Magnitsky-style directed sanctions, said that they nonetheless “welcomed” the steps. Those words matter. China purchases nearly one-third of Australian exports and has previously demonstrated—through the coercive use of economic leverage last year after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic—the heavy costs it is willing to exact when critiqued.

An Overdue Course Correction

Democracies acting in solidarity to address China’s deepening authoritarianism are taking a significant step. In recent years, the United States and the EU have pursued increasingly independent agendas toward China. Despite some activities in parallel on issues such as export controls and investment screenings, U.S. policymakers have staked out a broadly confrontational position, while Europeans have been far more conciliatory.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration, for example, launched multiple rounds of unilateral sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, starting in October 2019. But the Trump administration was using sanctions for a host of other policy reasons as well. Meanwhile, given the contradictions of Trump’s praise for Uyghur detention camps, a trade war, and widespread rhetoric by his administration about great power competition, the sanctions made specifically for human rights motivations were seen by many in China and elsewhere as a guise for playing power politics.

Steven Feldstein
Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where he focuses on issues of democracy and technology, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.

The prospect of getting caught up in a great power struggle led many small and middle-power democracies to avoid appearing too close to the United States. Facing significant potential risks, with less leverage, and at times greater dependence on Chinese trade, confrontation for many seemed unwise. Their pursuit of safer, more neutral ground was justified not only by self-preservation but also because the United States was not practicing what it preached: Washington was not clearly aligning itself at home or overseas with democratic values and human rights.

Meanwhile, the EU and individual European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron used their refusal to play great power politics as an excuse to remain quiescent as the scale of abuse in Xinjiang grew. While the EU sought to protect itself from concerns over Chinese espionage and interference through investment screening and blocking Huawei from European telecoms networks, and engaged in some export screening to avoid contributing to human rights issues in China, they were not outspoken on human rights concerns. In fact, the EU had other interests at play. The bloc was nearing completion of a seven-year negotiation for a major investment agreement, one that handed China a significant public relations victory.

The completion of such an important agreement in December 2020 showed that, despite the protests of a few EU members, China would face no real repercussions from the EU as a bloc for its growing authoritarianism. Instead, the agreement appeared poised to help China insulate itself from future U.S. sanctions by gaining access to the large European market, while driving a political wedge between Europe and the United States.

Against this backdrop, the U.S.-coordinated sanctions strategy appears to have rankled China. Chinese leaders immediately lashed out at the EU— with its investment agreement wholly negotiated but yet to be ratified by the European Parliament—by sanctioning ten individuals (including members of the European Parliament) and four entities. Perhaps they were trying to intimidate the only new actor involved; in February, Canada’s parliament labelled troubling activities in Xinjiang a genocide, and Canada and the UK had launched a trade and export control regime to prohibit Chinese goods made from forced labor and those that could be used for surveillance and repression. After EU countersanctions, China eventually sanctioned a handful of British legislators, as well as Canadian and U.S. officials.

But if China’s goal had been to divide and conquer by targeting the country it perceived to be the weakest member of the pack, their efforts may be backfiring. Beijing’s combative response has instead drawn the EU closer to the U.S. orbit. Several members of the European Parliament now have threatened to refuse to ratify the investment agreement with China unless sanctions against fellow members are lifted.

Related disputes are driving tensions even higher. When Western manufacturers such as H&M and Nike began distancing themselves from cotton suppliers in Xinjiang suspected of employing Uyghur forced labor, Chinese netizens, celebrities, and others struck back by organizing boycotts (seemingly with the support of China’s ruling party) of these Western brands’ products and demanding that these criticisms be retracted. Such confrontations have further chilled Europeans’ interest in ratifying the China-EU investment deal. Meanwhile, UK legislators who belong to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China have called for further sanctions on Chinese officials.

A Struggle for the Moral High Ground

True, China has managed to rally some countries to its side. Russia’s foreign minister met with China’s the day after the sanctions were announced. They declared that their countries would work together to end or at least dampen the economic effects of what they characterized as “illegitimate” sanctions, perhaps in part by trying to reduce their reliance on the U.S. dollar. The rapport between Russia and China, however, has been growing for some time; this recent move has not suddenly thrown them into one another’s arms. More interestingly, China has also been seeking support from Saudi Arabia (China is the kingdom’s top trading partner) and other Middle Eastern countries. But Beijing’s attempt to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran requires delicacy, and despite positive statements from a number of Middle Eastern ambassadors on China’s handling of Xinjiang, it is unclear that China has an easy path forward for deeper ties.

Meanwhile, China has joined Russia’s long-standing efforts to undermine the moral high ground of democracies. Two days after the sanctions were unveiled, China issued a report on U.S. human rights abuses and called for Western sanctions against Australia for alleged crimes committed by its military in Afghanistan, while comparing Australian refugee camps on Manus Island to concentration camps. This line of attack against Western (particularly American) racial inequity and imperialist hypocrisy is a throwback to tactics popularized by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in part because the obvious truths such messaging contained were potent.

The United States needs to tackle its patterns of discrimination and abuses against its minority populations, just as Australia’s refugee camps, decried by much of the country’s own population, require focused attention and solutions. The United States and middle-power democracies can best address their weaknesses by dispelling this hypocrisy by doing better domestically, not doing less internationally. Their efforts to improve their democracies at home, and to shore up democracy and human rights abroad, should be simultaneous, intimately connected endeavors.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, democracies have not had to address systematic human rights abuses in a country that was also a great power. The main tool used to act during the Cold War, the Helsinki Accords, provides an instructive path forward. In 1975, when the Helsinki Final Act was signed, only one-third of countries around the globe were democracies, and many of these states were facing internal discord, violence, and unrest far beyond what is occurring today. But they nevertheless banded together to begin a fifteen-year effort to roll back authoritarianism. U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration’s efforts to forge democratic solidarity with middle-power democracies is perhaps a first step in a broader, iterative strategy that could return global democracy to that position of strength.