The EU’s complicity in the Uyghur genocide

On the 1st of January 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and CCP leader Xi Jinping signed the China-EU Comprehensive Plan of Action (CAI). If the European Parliament approve the deal, the EU will gain a greater level of market access to an economy engaged in a form of terror capitalism that many have labelled genocide. The driving principle behind the CAI is that China will ‘change through trade’. While the economies of the EU have benefited tremendously from this strategy, Chinese reforms are yet to materialize. Not only has China failed to democratise since it was first admitted to the global capitalist system, it has actually become significantly more authoritarian as the Uyghur concentration camps demonstrate. 

Fox and Godement’s study of EU-China relations provides a damning indictment of this ‘unconditional engagement’ strategy and its failure to elicit any serious reforms in China. This strategy has also divided EU states seeking to penetrate the Chinese market, preventing them from dealing seriously with issues like meeting the Dalai Lama.

The CAI departs from a more confrontational China policy the EU was recently beginning to adopt. One EU Commission strategy paper from March 2019 even went so far as to refer to China as a ‘systemic rival’. China has finally succeeded in reversing this designation; Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said in an interview that “China and the EU are comprehensive strategic partners, not systemic rivals”. 

What explains the shift in strategy? Capitals and researchers across Europe point to Germany. Merkel has opposed calls to exclude Huawei from Germany’s 5G network and refused to congratulate Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election out of fear of offending China. German-China relations are unlikely to change under the new CDU leader Armin Laschet. While Laschet’s rivals Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen would have engaged with China in line with the ‘systemic rival’ strategy, Laschet’s track record of standing up to authoritarian leaders is poor.

More sinister economic interests may actually explain Germany’s complacency in the face of the Uyghur genocide. Taking into account Germany’s corporatist economic system is instrumental in understanding Merkel’s China policy. The car manufacturing lobby wields immense influence in German politics, especially on China policy. In the words of Andreas Fulda at the University of Nottingham, “In 2020, it is abundantly clear that China did not liberalise and democratise as a result of German car manufacturers enriching themselves by selling cars to China”.

The trade deal may benefit the economies of the EU (although even this is doubtful) but it will certainly do nothing to confront the largest case of mass internment since the holocaust. Rather than closing the camps being a necessary precondition of the deal, the CAI merely states vaguely that “China has decided to send a very strong signal in CAI to ratify the ILO fundamental Conventions on forced labour (C29 and C105)”. Martin Thorley, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter, believes these commitments are “laughably weak”. This language is not legally binding and is reminiscent of a trade deal with Korea which contained labour rights commitments that Seoul said were just “aspirational”.

The CAI would also inhibit EU-US cooperation on ending forced Uyghur labour. Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan has expressed concern about the deal. Martin Thorley believes that weakening US-EU relations may potentially be the main goal of the CCP. The EU views the CAI as merely a trade deal, but Xi Jinping clearly sees it as a political victory. While the EU may argue that closer relations with China are a bulwark against “divide and rule” tactics, Didi Kirsten Tatlow argues this fundamentally misses the point – “Divide and rule has, arguably, merely been bumped up a level, with the CAI deal driving a potential wedge into the Western alliance itself”. 

The CAI may be the most egregious example of the failure of the international community to respond to the Uyghur genocide, but the EU is not unique in this respect. The Conservative government in the UK recently voted against an amendment to the trade bill that would have given UK courts the ability to revoke bilateral trade deals with states committing a genocide. The Conservative government point to the Modern Slavery Act as an adequate safeguard of Uyghur rights. However, all the act does is threaten companies making more than £36m a year with fines if they don’t publish a statement condemning slavery. Huawei and Hikvision (two companies deeply embroiled in the Uyghur genocide) have written such statements

Where progress in combatting Uyghur genocide has been made, it has been slow. The official designation of events in Xinjiang as genocide by the US government is certainly a massive achievement but the Trump administration should not be congratulated. Trump consistently blocked bills concerning Uyghurs in Congress out of fear that it would make a trade deal harder. Trump himself has expressed support for the internment of Uyghurs on at least two separate occasions (once to Xi and once to his staff). With this in mind, the fact that Trump’s administration has done more to combat Uyghur genocide than any other state or multilateral institution is more of an indictment of the rest of the international community than something Trump should be praised for. 

The international community is at a critical juncture. If the CAI is approved by the European Parliament, then Germany will have succeeded in ‘exporting its China policy to the private sector’ as it has for the past 20 years. However, this is not inevitable. If the European Parliament votes against the CAI, the EU may orient itself successfully towards the Biden administration. If the revised genocide amendment succeeds in passing the House of Commons in the coming weeks, the UK will begin to fulfil its obligations under the Genocide Convention. Writing to your MP encouraging them to vote for the amendment takes only 30 seconds using this email template. If both of these fail and business interests’ triumph, then a devastating blow will have been made against the campaign to stop the Uyghur genocide.

If you would be interested in becoming a student ambassador for Students for Uyghurs to raise awareness of the genocide of Uyghur Muslims on your campus, please contact: or 

‘The Genocide Amendment: A Briefing’ taking place at 6:30 pm on Tuesday 2nd of February is an opportunity for you to find out more about the Genocide Amendment, what it will do and why it is so important that it passes. Learn from and ask questions to experts in the field Micheal Polak (Barrister and Director of Justice Abroad) and Joe Collins (Executive Director of Yet Again). The next week is the most important in our fight for Uyghur rights. This amendment has been described as the “most important breakthrough in human rights legislation in our country for the last 20-30 years” by a leading campaigner on this issue.

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