Huawei & the Uyghurs — A Story in Trade and Terror

Or ‘The Place of Inconvenient Moral Decision Making in Major Global Trade Relationships’

A 5-Minuter from Wonk Bridge

An image from a Uyghur re-education camp in Xinjiang

In some fashionable circles it has become de rigeur to make a point of the Trump administration’s supposed similarities with the CCP of Xi Jinping, as a means of telegraphing the depths to which the office of the American presidency has fallen. Of course, the majority of people who’d broker such a comparison — at least, in the circles to which I refer — do not do so because they think it is correct, but because they enjoy it. It is, after all, partly valid, partly contentious, and partly absurd.

The one thing which most fundamentally differentiates even this most fallen edition of the United States, and an economically-ascendant China, is the Uyghur question. Or, to put it more appropriately, the Uyghur fact. There has been a great deal of controversy sown in China’s relationships with other major global powers in the past several months, this week’s news of the UK government’s refusal to grant 5G installation permits to Huawei the most recent among them.

The most amazing thing about this wealth of controversy — which takes among its dreadnoughts matters no less profound than the ongoing troubles in Hong Kong, and COVID-19 itself — is that the treatment of the Uyghurs numbers the least trumpeted among them. Why?

Who Are the Uyghurs?

Native to Xinjiang, a now-Autonomous Region in Northwestern China, the Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking minority ethnic group, one of the 55 officially recognised by China as residing within its borders. Originally local to the belt of oases in the Taklamakan Desert, they settled in Xinjiang in the 10th century, after their fledgling empire, the Uyghur Khaganate, was defeated by a coalition of the Chinese and the Yenisi Kyrgyz. The Uyghurs made first contact with Islam in the same century, and were majority Islamic by the 16th.

Uighur Khagan — Kingdom of Qocho

There has been lingering and ambient conflict between the Uyghurs and the Chinese since the Uyghurs were first accused of selling duff horses to the Chinese in the Khaganate days, right through to the Stalin-subsidised Uyghur independence uprisings of 1933 and 1944[1]. However, the present strain of oppression began in 2014, whereupon the Uyghurs became the subject of extensive police surveillance by the Chinese state. Owning a prayer mat, growing a beard, owning Uyghur books, or quitting drinking or smoking became considered subversive behaviours. The surveillance extended as far as the indiscriminate installation of CCTV in private residences.

Owing to the Uyghurs’ blood-flecked history of renegade political thought, the CCP then saw fit to begin detaining them in “political re-education” camps. Inmates tend to be held in these camps until they succeed in scoring high enough on Chinese ideology exams that their re-education is considered in evidence. This period of time rarely lasts fewer than 12 months. You can be detained on the basis that a member of your family is suspected of harbouring deviant political sensibilities, and in 2018 the New York Times reported that inmates are required “to sing hymns to the Chinese Communist Party and and write ‘self-criticism’ essays,” as part of their re-education.

Having been rumbled by the Human Rights Watch, China’s first response was to deny the camps’ existence, then to suggest that they form part of robust anti-terrorism measures. The rate of camp expansion through 2018 suggested that the scale of internment was now on the order of 100,000s. The latest leaked information suggests China may not stop there, with sterilisation of Uyghur women very much in their ongoing plans.

The treatment of the Uyghurs occupies a stark position, with respect to its extremism and even atrocity, as a procedure for the integration or, to use the local variant, ‘Sinicisation’ of an ethnic minority. Despite the denunciation of China’s conduct by 22 nations, 50 further states have commended the Xinjiang approach to anti-terrorism. Even many of those nations to condemn China over the Uyghurs have done so moderately or with some equivocation.

The remainder of the 50 states’ letter to the UNHRC, which you can download here, is almost scrupulous-seeming in its refusal to mention the Uyghurs by name.

While the most deafening and egregious of the national silences on the Uyghur plight ostensibly belongs to Islamic nations — several of whom, including Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Syria, and Pakistan, are among those who actively support China’s measures —it is also striking how little space the unfolding scandal occupies in the Western imagination.

It has not obtained critical mass among the public, and has only in recent months been formally legislated against, through the US’ Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. This may owe in perhaps unsurprising part to the fact that Western supply chains run through the region and — so it is rumoured — through the camps themselves. When not at hymn practice, the Uyghurs are being conscripted to forced labour, building shoes and mobile phones.

A Mysterious Silence

It is interesting to consider the way in which trade dependencies on Chinese tech, and a broader matrix of international economic alliances between China and other nations, might be helping complicate global response to the Uyghur situation.

The States’ position on the issue is jaundiced. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is the first set of national sanctions to mention the situation. However, on the day it was passed into law, John Bolton claimed Trump had twice told Xi Jinping to push ahead with the internment plan. Moreover, the sanctions made legal by the legislation pertain to individuals in the government of China considered culpable for enabling human rights abuses. That means that the US will presumably jeopardise few of the economic benefits it ostensibly stands to accrue from the ‘Phase One’ Trade Deal, in order for them to take this limited ‘stand’ on behalf of the Uyghurs.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the history of positive relations between the UK and China, it is the British who are lately most confident in rebuffing trade initiatives with China (although none so far have been justified with disavowal of the Uyghur situation). Last month Boris Johnson’s government officially offered 3 million eligible Hongkongers residence in the UK. No less sensationally, the UK then scrapped a plan to allow Huawei to handle 5G installation throughout Britain earlier this week. British precedent in snubbing Huawei was in part taken from Australia, who had likewise moved to ban the Chinese tech giant from erecting Australia’s own 5G network in February.

The UK’s resolution was based on “new advice produced by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on the impact of US sanctions against the telecommunications vendor…Technical experts at the NCSC reviewed the consequences of the sanctions and concluded the company will need to do a major reconfiguration of its supply chain as it will no longer have access to the technology on which it currently relies and there are no alternatives which we have sufficient confidence in. They found the new restrictions make it impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future.”

The UK risks, in the words of the Global Times, reprisal that is “public and painful” for their temerity.

Image from Sky News

The Uyghur situation to some degree epitomises much of the rest of the world’s uneasy relationship with human rights compromises in China — from Tiananmen onwards, the West in particular has faced a frightful dilemma. On the one hand, here was China the vast virgin market, the outsourcer’s Atlantis. Its favour-kept made vast economic sense, particularly from the perspective of a Western economy where, with the sane exception of the Northern Europeans, stakeholder appeasement (and, for that matter, pure ‘economic sense’) was being allowed to become evermore strident, and to predominate over long-term business and social planning. This was risky; no sure bet. Being too compliant with whatever political system should develop in China post-Tiananmen was riskier still.

The diplomatic opiate which was selected, in a vain bid to have it both ways, was to attempt to influence China’s more contentious domestic policies via a directness of relationship, with fluid trade, through humanitarian nudges, hoping the world’s most populous country would ultimately make like a vast equivalent to Japan or South Korea. The Western consumer, with their perennial willingness to mute their principles of (or at least their tendencies towards) what is liberal and democratic in order to secure slightly cheaper goods, was only too happy to play along.

A Certain Tig(g)er

China has undoubtedly acted in an emboldened, tigerish fashion in recent months — looking to exploit impasses in the USA-EU relationship, perhaps, to get a great deal of its potentially contentious linen out on the line at once. That includes not only the worsening plight of the Uyghurs, but ongoing tumult in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and border conflict with India as well. These flashpoints tell the tale of a China growing in confidence, if not in hubris.

But China are not so old-fashioned — are not old-fashioned at all, in fact. They are still ostensibly vying to take the mantle of cultural imperialism from the United States, a form of world conquest that is chiefly economic. Stimulating tech within the economy has been a cornerstone of China’s domestic and international economic policy in the last 5 years. Domestically, the vast amount of state investment in Chinese companies has prevented them getting stuck in the middle-class phase, and being stumped by growing private debt and shrinking working age population.

Taking Huawei as an example, its ownership structure is complex — it is notionally owned by CEO Ren Zhengfei, though he in fact owns 1% of shares in the company. The rest owned by a trade committee, an opaque kind of trade union representing employees. Research suggests that this is a devolved short-hand for state ownership. It is a more extensive version of America’s own system of allowing only domestic companies to bid for lavish government procurements (for reasons of supposed National Security), and preferential treatment given to American goods through the Buy American act.

China’s continuing upward trajectory along these lines will depend on the works of Alibaba and Tencent becoming global in prospect. That is the plan— and it remains to be seen how the Uyghur situation, and the rest, will affect willingness to embrace these advances. The collective rebuttal of Huawei presents a profound complication of this ambition. China’s tone of response (through its Global Times-mouthpiece) shows that they know that.

[1] Some have seen a certain dreadful irony in what is presently being wrought upon the Uyghurs in light of their former alliance with Stalin.

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