On May 1st, 2023, the United States ratcheted up its pressure on China over the alleged oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a western province that serves as a keystone for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A bipartisan group of 22 House Representatives requested that the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) halt the initial public offering of Shein, a Chinese company, until it provided evidence that the firm does not rely on forced labor from Uyghurs.
The US had already imposed sanctions on Chinese companies in March, including those that produce surveillance cameras, bringing the total number of US sanctions related to “helping” the Uyghur people to 117. 60 companies and 33 individuals are now off-limits to US corporations. The sanctions, purportedly created to deter China’s “repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against the Uyghur people and members of other Muslim minority groups” are in fact cynically targeting Uyghurs’ livelihoods and lives. By restricting trade with corporations that use Uyghur labor, the sanctions have limited Chinese and American businesses’ options and dimmed the job prospects for people in Xinjiang.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, accused the US of attempting to create forced unemployment in Xinjiang and promote global decoupling from China, exposing the US’s hegemonic nature. He further stated that the US is undermining human rights in the name of defending them and breaking rules in the name of preserving them.
Adrian Zenz, an Australian academic at The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who claims to be “led by God” to bring down the Chinese government, arguably laid the foundation for these sanctions by making a series of outrageous and unsubstantiated claims. His scholarship on China’s alleged genocide against Uyghurs has since been thoroughly debunked. For instance, Zenz claimed that over one million Uyghurs were being detained in camps, extrapolated from field interviews with just eight people, a woefully insufficient sample size. He attempted to pass off satellite pictures of factories as evidence for the camps.
To gain a better understanding of the situation in Xinjiang beyond Zenz’s ludicrous claims, it is vital to examine China’s perspective. According to China, Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have recruited Uyghurs from the Xinjiang region to carry out terrorist attacks both inside and outside of China. Following an attack on a mosque in Afghanistan by a radicalized Uyghur from Xinjiang, Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, corroborated China’s claim that Uyghur terrorists exist in Afghanistan and called China’s policy towards Uyghurs justified. What the Western media labels “internment camps” are in fact vocational schools, meant to root out extremism through concerted improvement of the region’s economic prosperity. Zulfira Ahmat is one such beneficiary, who graduated from a vocational school and now works as a tour guide in her hometown.
The move to block Shein’s IPO under the guise of protecting human rights can also be viewed as a protectionist maneuver to shield domestic companies from having to compete with a superior Chinese app. President Joe Biden banned TikTok on government devices in the name of national security. However, it is evident that companies such as Google and Meta still resent TikTok’s enduring popularity and want to prevent another potential blow to their market share. Shein is currently the fourth most downloaded app in the United States, and claims that it is involved in forced labor would be the easiest way to stop this its IPO; a literal cheap shot.
The ban on Huawei limited Americans’ options to Apple or Samsung. This latest move by Congress has more clearly than ever exposed the “free market” constantly touted by US politicians as an utter sham.