Economic interdependence: can the world bring an end to the Uighur genocide?
Photo: Liam Read via Unsplash

After deciding to take the international security module as part of my politics degree, I sat scanning through the topics in search of my first essay title. There were reading lists on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Civil War, refugees and then, an entire topic on genocide and mass atrocities. It struck me as a topic to avoid; after all, lockdown was depressing enough and a week of reading into something much lighter seemed preferable. 

In the end, however, I decided to plough on with the topic and was quickly enthralled. I found myself motivated by the objective goal of the study: rather than looking backwards, in order to identify and to provide historical accounts of such atrocities, the focus was on looking forwards, in order to identify and examine the effects of such atrocities and to outline and investigate the best methods of realising peace and averting them in the future. It made the work feel much more purposeful although, admittedly, I had not envisaged I would be applying this knowledge to a present-day scenario.

The Chinese treatment of its Uighur muslim minority in Xinjiang is one such case. Drone footage released and verified only a few weeks ago shows Uighur prisoners being blindfolded and marched onto trains, their destinations shrouded in mystery. Interviews with Uighur women show the Chinese regime’s intent to sterilise and to limit the population growth of the Uighur minority. The Chinese government dismissed this evidence as “baseless” when asked to comment, yet figures themselves show that growth rates of the Uighur population have shrunk significantly, down by more than 80% between 2013 and 2018 in the two largest Uighur prefectures in Xinjiang.

No doubt, most readers will already be at least somewhat be aware of these distressing stories which appear to be entirely out of place in the modern world. Yet, while genocides such as this are unusual, they are not unforeseeable. As research over the past 70 years has found, there are many indicators which can predict their occurrence. The academic Barbara Harff is one such researcher and she identified that having had prior genocides, ethnic and religious societal cleavages, an authoritarian government, and a lack of foreign interdependence are some of the most important factors which all greatly increase the likelihood of genocide in a given region.

Furthermore, despite her research taking place some 17 years ago she also identified China as a country at risk of committing what would be its fourth genocide since the CCP took power in 1950. However, while most of the aforementioned indicators are relevant to modern day China and the ongoing Uighur genocide, one crucial factor is missing – that is, that the Chinese regime has extensive international ties and is interdependent to a large degree with much of the international community. According to the research, this ought to limit China’s ability to further commit genocide. 

Foreign interdependence refers to the idea that nations rely on one another. Trade is the best example of this – in any trade that occurs both participants benefit since each would prefer the other’s goods over their own. If one country specialises in extracting raw materials and another specialises in manufacturing, the two countries are able to be more productive when they engage in trade. Interdependence can come in many forms, however. While members of the EU are interdependent to a large degree over trade, each country is also subject to the European Court of Human Rights and their charter and also the legislation passed in the European Parliament. Interdependence is observed when countries engage in large amounts of trade and participate actively within the international community. 

Through being part of international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) or by engaging in trade with the rest of the world, states are subject to each other’s influence far more than otherwise. Through issuing sanctions, negotiating trade partnerships, granting international funding, boycotting countries, freezing individuals’ assets and excluding countries from international events, there are plenty of tools at the disposal of the international community if they wish to coerce a country or their leaders into doing something without the use of military force. 

In the Balkans, during the former Yugoslavian civil war, the lack of interdependence is generally accepted as enabling the genocides that took place. Firstly, the Yugoslav state, which was separating at the time of the conflict, had few ties to the rest of the world. The result is that few countries had sufficient soft power to exert any influence in the former Yugoslavia. Realising that nothing but the use of force by the international community could have halted their efforts and judging this outcome to be unlikely, the Serbian forces were not deterred from their policy of ethnic cleansing.

A similar case occurred in the Algerian civil war, which ensued following a disputed election result. Several atrocities occurred and branches of the rebel group, fighting the internationally backed government forces, were suspected to have coordinated the attacks. These rebel groups themselves received no support from the international community and furthermore, were not represented in organisations such as the UN since their authority was not internationally recognised. Because of this, the rebels had little to lose in the conflict and so pursued a course of civilian massacres when it best suited their campaign.

Much unlike the Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia and the Rebel groups fighting in the Algerian civil war, the perpetrators of the Uighur conflict in Xinjiang – the Chinese government – remain inextricably tied to the international community. The US currently has a trade deficit with China amounting to nearly $420Bn and China features in countless international communities being one of the five permanent members on the UN security council and holding positions in many other international organisations.

Furthermore, the accusations of “brutal meddling” from China to the UK  following the UK’s reaction to the enactment of the new national security law in Hong Kong and similar statements issued to other countries show that the Chinese regime is acutely aware of the impact foreign countries’ decisions may have upon their internal affairs.

China’s ties to the international community are important to them economically, but at the same time, such ties act as a restraint upon poor policy decisions. There are two key mechanisms which are relevant to the international community and the Uighur genocide.

Firstly, needless to say, genocide puts business and international ties at risk. Businesses and states are usually unwilling to partner with countries that have poor human rights records, engage in forced labour or commit atrocities upon their own citizens.

The decision to ban Huawei from the UK’s 5G network is a stark example of this. With the UK government unconvinced that the business operates independently from the Chinese state, they have argued that the Chinese government could use Huawei’s to jeopardize the infrastructure of the United Kingdom. The US has been arguing that it is a threat to the national security of western nations.

While the ban itself has occurred for a number of reasons, the culmination of political tensions between China and the west, of which the Uighur genocide is a part, has stressed their relationship. With US President Donald Trump hinting at a ban of the Chinese owned social media service – Tik Tok, it is clear that the US has intentions to withdraw itself from the influence of the Chinese owned companies. The result of this could spell difficulty for China. As a country with particularly extensive and valuable ties to the west, these ties are already being jeopardised by the country’s actions.

Secondly, countries involved in trade gain unanimously. Yet this also means that the gains from international ties can be held at ransom if nations act poorly towards each other. China has plenty to lose on in terms of the benefits it receives from trade, and by committing this genocide, it risks jeopardising these benefits.

As a result, when a country is deeply intertwined with the rest of the international community, this often serves to pacify their actions and reduces the risk of conflict. The European Union has served as a brilliant example of this. With war ravaging the continent for the first half of the 20th century, the project to merge the economies of European countries through eliminating barriers to trade has resulted in a long lasting, ongoing, and stable peace ever since.

Therefore, the western hemisphere has a reasonable number of options when dealing with China. Following examples of the past, the European Union has placed heavy sanctions on Russia in response to their invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In addition, South Africa was banned from the Olympics and ostracised from the international community over its racist policy of apartheid. Furthermore, in North Korea, they have been barred from even entering many levels of the international community as heavy sanctions have remained in place for many years in response to their ongoing nuclear programme. As a result they haven’t been able to develop their economy much due to direct opposition from the west. As each of these countries have experienced, the loss or absence of international ties has proved costly. 

However, it may be the case that China is an outlier in this process – able to resist and continue on its own path, rather than conforming to western pressures like Harff predicted. Written from a western perspective, the idea of international interdependence refers largely to dependence on the western democratic nations above all else – particularly America. Yet, with the second largest economy in the world and one of the fastest growing, perhaps it is the case that the Chinese state is not so reliant on Europe and America such that they may be subject to their influence and it could even be the case that China themselves may be powerful enough to influence western nations themselves. Therefore eliminating interdependence as a potential method of mitigating the genocide.

Written in 2003, Harff’s paper applies well to prior genocides such as those in Algeria and the former Yugoslavia which took place during and immediately following the cold war where the US was the undisputed global superpower. However, never before has this theory been applied to a country like modern day China, where the international community has a lot to lose from the breaking down of relations and where they have the international power to resist pressure from the west.

The extent to which international action has been effective has varied, but nevertheless, action has still had an impact. Russia still holds significant influence in Ukraine, yet in South Africa, the policy of appartheid was changed and in North Korea, they agreed to limit their testing capabilities after having engaged in talks with the US for the first time recently. While companies and countries may gradually lose incentives to work with and operate in China, the international community still maintains a range of available tools which can be used to apply pressure to the Chinese regime in order to influence their domestic actions to curb its human rights abuses. With fresh international condemnations coming in from many countries over China’s actions in Hong Kong, it may only be so long before states such as the US begin to boycott chinese products and tariffs on trade are heightened. It may then be the case that other countries such as those in Europe follow suit and meet with similar snubs. Following this, China could experience bans from international events and exclusions from international communities and sooner or later, the Chinese state may begin to observe economic difficulties. Finally, if these actions are effective, then the Chinese government would have to choose between prioritising ethnic cleansing among some of their other more controversial policies, or the nation’s economic wellbeing.