THERE was something strange about listening this week to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab call out China over persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mr Raab is right of course that Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs is “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” and that the “world cannot simply look the other way.”

It’s curious then that the UK government has managed to do just that for so long before finally deciding to take Beijing to task over the issue.

Concern over the Uighurs has undeniably been raised by the UK in the past but not, it must be said, with any real force, meaning that it’s invariably fallen on deaf ears both home and away.

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Moreover, rarely, if ever, have we seen Boris Johnson’s government so willing to take such punitive measures against Beijing as the sanctions announced by Mr Raab on Monday.

A message was clearly being sent out. One whereby senior Chinese officials and entities like the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau that have direct connections to the internment camp system, would bear the brunt of the UK’s response.

Let’s be clear here, what we are witnessing is not some kind of new gutsy UK foreign policy, though more of that in a minute. The fact is Britain of course was not alone in acting, with both the US and EU operating alongside the UK and many other nations in a co-ordinated move that sparked an immediate retaliation from Beijing.

Welcome as this joint action was, it’s worth remembering though that it was as far back now as 2018 that the UN reported how an estimated one million people, mostly Uighurs, had been detained in mass prison camps where they have been subjected to torture, forced labour, and mass sterilisation. Why then the apparent sudden awakening of Britain, the US and EU to the plight of the Uighurs and the decision to act?

The answer in part can be attributed to the cumulative evidence gathering and campaigning that has been underway globally these past years aimed at having the international community hold China to account.

A crucial new report compiled and recently published by a non-partisan US-based thinktank, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in cooperation with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, has also gone some considerable way to focusing minds on the issue.


As one of the first independent legal examinations of China’s persecution of the Uighurs under the 1948 genocide convention, the report stops short of recommendations for action. But drawn as it is from comprehensive research involving experts in international law and Chinese ethnic policies as well as evidence from both public and leaked Chinese state communications, satellite image analysis, internet and eyewitness accounts, the report’s findings are hard to ignore.

But there are other reasons too why the West and in particular the UK and US are now more than willing to bring pressure to bear on China over the Uighurs. It may seem a rather cynical explanation but in short, the timing suits both London and Washington. To take the UK government first and that ‘new’ foreign policy approach I mentioned earlier, the Tory government has already thrown itself into the throes of its new ‘Global Britain’ crusade as outlined last week in the release of the integrated review on defence, security, and foreign policy.

One of the dominant themes pervading the whole review was the need to roll back China’s growing assertiveness, typified by Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Boris Johnson’s government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is still smarting too from the most pernicious effects of this on UK interests, notably China’s crackdown on the once semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong.

There the Chinese authorities have all but overturned the Hong Kong electoral system, which the UK government insists represents a major breach of the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration handover agreement. Pro-democracy activists are either rounded up or hounded out of the territory and to date Britain has done little but bleat in the wake of China’s actions.

With the Uighur issue it has found a way to strike back knowing full well it will not be going it alone in imposing sanctions.

The Tories even stand to gain on the domestic political front and opposition MPs are perhaps not far off the mark in insisting that ‘getting tough’ with China over the Uighurs is as much a cynical manoeuvre to appease Conservative backbenchers ahead of votes on amendments to the Trade Bill aimed at stopping trade pacts with countries involved in genocide.

The likes of Tom Tugendhat, a leading China critic, is the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and along with others such as Iain Duncan Smith are part of a Sino-sceptic and very vocal group in Parliament who would like to see the government get even tougher with Beijing.

Then we have Washington’s take with the new Xinjiang sanctions coming on the heels of the first high-level meeting between the US and China since Joe Biden became president.

Last week’s talks in Anchorage laid bare the degree of chill that grips US-China relations right now. While officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are fond of repeating the popular refrain that, “the east is rising, and the west is declining,” Mr Biden has made it his administration’s mission to resist Beijing’s growing disregard for the so called rules based international order.

Just like other actors in the latest coordinated sanctions against China over the Uighurs, Washington faces uncomfortable efforts to maintain political and economic ties with Beijing while confronting it in other areas, such as its human rights record.

While Beijing continues to insist that its treatment of the Uighurs represents a “shining example” of China’s human right progress, the latest independent report by the US based Newlines Institute has found Beijing to be in breach of all five acts of genocide, as defined by the UN.

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Given this and seen especially from the perspective of human rights activists and above all those Uighurs who bear the brunt of China’s oppressive rule in Xinjiang, the joint action by the UK, US and EU is to be welcomed. Better late than never as the saying goes. But only the most politically naïve could fail to recognise that this has as much to do with bashing Beijing as it has to do with protecting the Uighur.

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