Should Western Governments Name and Shame China over the Uyghurs, and if so, How?

Dr Adrian Gallagher, Co-Director of ECR2P, explores whether Western governments should name and shame China over the Uyghurs, and how they should employ this strategy.

 

On 22 April 2021, the UK House of Commons voted in favour of labelling actions taken against the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region as genocide. Whilst this author agrees with the judgment, in this piece I ask those seeking to name and shame China to consider the intended and unintended consequences of this practice. I argue that a culmination of factors in the lead up to the 2022 Winter Olympics creates a window of opportunity for naming and shaming to have a positive impact but only if done in a certain way. It puts forward a series of recommendations to guide those seeking to name and shame. The blog draws on a recent article I published on this topic which provides more detail for those interested.

 

Naming and Shaming

Essentially, governments, non-governmental organisations and the media engage in naming and shaming in the hope that by shining a light on the human rights abuses being carried out, the moral credibility of the perpetrators will come under intense scrutiny, thus forcing actors to take a stand. If the perpetrators calculate that the risks involved in continuing their chosen strategy of oppression outweigh the benefits, one expects them to change their plan of action.

Problematically, there are many cases where this practice has been ineffective, or worse, counterproductive, in that it fuelled a backlash leading to an increase in human rights violations. In the first global study of its kind, Hafner-Burton found evidence of these unintended consequences in Algeria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Niger, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Thalian, Turkey, Ukraine, and ‘other countries too’. To explain this, Snyder draws on psychology, social psychology, and sociology to explain that naming and shaming has a ‘built-in propensity to produce counterproductive backlash’. Here we begin to see that who is doing the naming and shaming, and how it is being done, is critical. Perpetrators can invoke cultural, ethnic, racial, and national factors to dismiss the allegations made by ‘foreigners’ to stir up domestic support whilst intensifying human rights violations. This is critically important when considering that the West has been at the vanguard of naming and shaming China.

 

China

Since the end of the Cold War, China has been routinely named and shamed with, broadly speaking, largely ineffective results. Consequently, one might conclude that naming and shaming China over the Uyghurs should not be implemented. There are two key considerations here. First, a domestic backlash could see the Chinese government intensify violence against the Uyghurs. At present, it is difficult to see where domestic checks and balances could come from in an authoritarian state that has seemingly convinced the population that the Uyghurs threaten national security. Second, there is the potential for international backlash. When one considers that China is the second largest contributor to both the UN’s overall budget and more specifically, peace operations, it is important to recognise that a backlash at the international level could jeopardise international society’s capacity to deal with human rights violations elsewhere in the world, as well as other threats such as climate change.

The critical issue, therefore, is whether naming and shaming could be effective. Here it is important to consider the role that status plays in Chinese foreign policy as the Chinese government has been labelled as being ‘obsessed’ with status. Crucially, this helps us understand why naming and shaming did have a positive impact on Chinese foreign policy in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. The so-called ‘Genocide Olympics’ (a term coined by Mia Farrow) shone a light on the Chinese government’s relationship with the Sudanese government at a time when the latter was accused of perpetrating genocide in Darfur. Under international pressure, the Chinese government altered its stance as it openly criticised the Sudanese regime and voted in favour of a UN Security Council Resolution which established a peacekeeping mission on Darfur.

From this perspective, a case can be made that China’s desire for status recognition through the 2022 Olympics provides a window of opportunity for naming and shaming to have a positive influence on the Chinese government. It is necessary to stress the difference here that in 2008 the issue at stake was a foreign policy one (Sudan) as opposed to a national issue (Xinjiang). As a result, one would not expect the Chinese government to bow to international criticism in the same way it did in 2008. Nonetheless, there are three important factors to bear in mind. First, unlike 2008, this could literally be a ‘genocide Olympics’ in that the games will actually be held in a country whose government is being accused of genocide. Second, confidence and trust in the CCP dipped sharply in 2020 due to concerns over how it handled the outbreak of Covid-19. The image of China has, therefore, been tarnished and no doubt elites in Beijing are seeking to enact damage limitation. Third, the election of Joe Biden in the US offers the world an alternative to the populist leadership of President Trump and the authoritarian leadership of President Xi.

 

How Should Governments Name and Shame China?

If Western governments are to gain broader international support, they need to consider how naming and shaming China should be done in order to try and prevent unintended consequences from emerging in the first place. Here, I set out four recommendations.

First, Western governments need make the dominant narrative about genocide and crimes against humanity rather than counterterrorism. President Xi depicts the camps as a ‘total success’ and that the strategy constitutes rightful conduct because it is successful. This has to be challenged directly. Beijing cannot use genocide or crimes against humanity as a means to an end. Governments that want to support the Chinese Communist Party, for example, for geo-political reasons, will have an easier time showing support if the discourse centres on counterterrorism.

Second, governments can criticize Beijing for crimes against the Uyghurs but acknowledge the positive role that China plays in international society. For example, on peacekeeping and climate change. This may help reduce the potential of a backlash but also help win the support of governments that may oppose the strategy in Xinjiang but admire what the Chinese government has achieved in other areas.

Third, Western governments need to tackle a central problem – China is buying silence. This is a critical issue in Muslim majority countries. For instance, Prime Minster Khan has distanced himself from criticising China whilst claiming ‘they came to help us when we were at rock bottom, and so we are really grateful to the Chinese government’. With this in mind, Western governments need to do more to remove the crutch of Beijing support.

Fourth, Western governments need to critically reflect on their own practices and work to improve their own moral standing in the world. As trust in China decreased in 2020, this was an opportunity for Western governments to build trust but instead, President Trump privately expressed his support for the mass internment of the Uyghurs, the UK cut its international aid budget, and Western governments bought up  as much of the world’s Covid-19 vaccine as possible with little consideration for poorer country’s needs. Quite simply, namers and shamers need to get their own houses in order.

Overall, those who seek to name and shame have a moral responsibility to consider the unintended consequences of their actions. If they wish to engage in this practice, it needs to be done in a certain way so as to try and reduce the potential of a counterproductive backlash.

Adrian Gallagher is an Associate Professor in International Relations in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. He is the Co-Director of the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Editor of Global Responsibility to Protect. Email: a.gallagher@leeds.ac.uk

 

Image credit: ‘Chinese flag’ by Philip Jägenstedt.

 

If you are interested in submitting a blog post for the ECR2P’s Fresh Perspectives series, then please contact Richard Illingworth by Email (r.illingworth@leeds.ac.uk) or Twitter (@RJI95).