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[Elizabeth Shackelford] Don’t let China’s rights abuses pay off

The international community should make China a pariah for its crimes against the Uyghur population. Last month’s report from the UN Human Rights Office says China’s actions could constitute crimes against humanity. The United States and others have called it genocide.

But China’s massive role in our highly integrated global economy means meaningful action will be costly. A complete economic divorce is impractical, but the United States can and should work with like-minded partners and allies to ensure that China’s abuses do not continue to pay off on the global market and to reduce dependence on China in areas that put our national security and economy at risk.

Human rights abuse in China is not new or limited to the Uyghur population. All Chinese citizens are subject to widespread surveillance, harsh treatment of dissent, minimal public political participation and controlled access to information. The West has turned a blind eye to these practices for decades in exchange for cheap labor, cheap goods and a massive consumer market. In doing so, the United States and other nations have helped China benefit from its abusive behavior.

Chinese companies export repression too, manufacturing nearly 25 percent of the world’s security cameras. The cameras used for mass surveillance in China prevent package theft and home invasion in neighborhoods across America, but they’re used to track citizens in other authoritarian countries, too.

Since 2017, however, China’s treatment of the Uyghurs has overshadowed the nation’s everyday repression, and a majority of Americans find it a compelling reason for action, according to recent polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. An estimated 2 million people have been detained in 1,300 internment camps, where torture, sexual violence and forced labor are common. This has been done in the name of combating extremism, under vague laws which suspect everything from long beards to lacking an interest in karaoke.

Forced sterilization and contraception claims are credible given falling birthrates among the Uyghur population and leaked Chinese government documents detailing population control plans. Even by China’s own admission, hundreds of disappeared Uyghurs have died, presumably in custody.

But international obligations in the absence of self-interest can be easy to ignore. If forgoing some cheap goods and corporate profit to ensure we don’t facilitate gross human rights abuses isn’t compelling enough, consider it a forcing function for right sizing an economic relationship that also puts our national security at risk.

Under Xi Jinping’s rule, China is becoming more authoritarian and US national security risks from China are growing. Xi took power a decade ago, and if he is granted an unprecedented third term by the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress, as expected, the stakes will only get higher.

Economic dependence on an increasingly authoritarian state is risky and limits our foreign policy options. Look no further than Europe’s dependence on Russian gas to see how. If the United States wants to avoid giving China that kind of leverage over its foreign policy, the time to act is now.

It won’t be easy, but there are ways to take meaningful action. Doing so requires elevating human rights and national security above short-term corporate interests so that China’s abuses don’t keep paying off in the global economic system. The United States has imposed sanctions and some export restrictions but should do far more to impose real economic costs on China for these acts.

The good news is that Congress is already working in this direction. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act requires companies to prove that any goods imported from the Uyghur homeland in the Xinjiang region are not products of forced labor, and the CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law last month, provides support for critical industries to boost production at home.

But these steps primarily involve unilateral policies that would reshore production and give our response an “America First” flavor. While building capacity at home can be part of the solution, it won’t be enough. Collective action and coordination with like-minded partners and allies are the best answer to reducing our dependence on China and building an economy that we can rely on in hard times.

The United States should focus its diplomatic and economic leverage to rally many others to the cause. The Chip 4 alliance which the United States has recently proposed with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to address semiconductor supply is a step in the right direction. Building an economic coalition more reliant on the European Union and enhancing trade with countries in Latin American and African countries are two more ways we can start.

Elizabeth Shackelford

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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