The Uyghurs: Europe’s complicity and entanglement with China

To what extent are we prepared to stand up for our values, and at what economic cost? 

A devastating picture has emerged from the recently leaked Xinjiang Police Files — one that should finally lead to a European debate about our own complicity in China’s human rights violations. 

The European Union’s already learning some painful lessons through the war in Ukraine, which should now be applied to the greater systemic challenge on the axis of authoritarian expansionism — China. Economic entanglement with Russia and China has severely damaged the bloc’s strategic position, and crucially, it has resulted in a reluctance to stand up for and defend our values. 

In any future EU debate on Russia, the horrors of Bucha and Mariupol will be foremost on our mind. Similarly, human rights violations in China and, most urgently, the existential plight of the Uyghurs should inform the debate about our relationship with the country and our economic dependence on it.  

The decades-long process of pursuing economic entanglement with China was always presented as a win-win situation: We would benefit economically, while at the same time bringing change to China, as our influence would lead to political liberalization there.  

But in reality, European leaders like former German Chancellor Angela Merkel structurally downplayed any concerns regarding the violation of human rights and values by Beijing for the sake of short-term profit, and the resulting economic interdependence now severely limits our room for maneuver as an increasingly assertive China expands its global influence.   

Just one example of how the interweaving of our economies and supply chains has made us complicit in Chinese human rights abuses is that an estimated one in five cotton products worldwide now contains “Xinjiang cotton” — produced through forced labor and named after the region.