Xinjiang Cotton Shines Spotlight on Uyghur Issue in Taiwan

Xinjiang Cotton Shines Spotlight on Uyghur Issue in Taiwan

Xinjiang Cotton Shines Spotlight on Uyghur Issue in Taiwan

In late March, several Taiwanese celebrities working in China came under fire from Taiwanese government officials and netizens for publicly joining the Chinese state-run “I Support Xinjiang Cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花) social media movement, initiated by the People’s Daily (人民日報), which emerged as a response to Western criticism of the use of forced labor products from the persecuted ethnic Uyghur minority group. Taiwanese entertainment stars who have hitched their careers to the huge Chinese market—notably Ouyang Nana (歐陽娜娜), Janine Chang (張鈞甯), Eddie Peng (彭于晏), and Greg Hsu (許光漢)—joined dozens of Chinese and Hong Kong actors and singers in calling for a boycott of Western fashion brands that rejected the use of Xinjiang cotton in their products.

Such statements drew praise in Chinese media, but attracted criticism from many persons in Taiwan. Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) commented on March 26 that the “pro-Xinjiang cotton” Taiwanese celebrities “have no sense of propriety,” and that “their actions were selfish and showed a lack of understanding for the importance of human rights.” Su also called on the Taiwanese public to “speak on behalf of human rights and to work toward advancing human rights in the world.” As the Uyghur issue has emerged as a major point of contention in US-China relations, Taipei is increasingly inclined to support Western countries in defending Uyghur human and labor rights.

Western Sanctions on China

A few days after the tense US-China talks in Alaska, the European Union (EU) leveled sanctions against four Chinese officials over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR, 新疆維吾爾自治區) on March 22, marking the first EU sanctions on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The United Kingdom and Canada also quickly implemented parallel sanctions against senior Chinese officials complicit in the mass internment of Uyghurs. In coordinated fashion, the Biden Administration imposed sanctions on March 22 against two Chinese government officials: Wang Junzheng (王君正), secretary of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC, 新疆生產建設兵團), and Chen Mingguo (陳明國), director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB, 新疆公安局), with both officials also targeted by EU sanctions. On March 23, Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the reports of severe human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In one of its earliest policy moves on China, the Biden Administration clearly rallied its Western democratic allies to take collective action on the Uyghur human rights issue.

In response, China immediately hit back with its own sanctions on 10 European Union officials and a scholar, as well as four institutions on March 22. The list of sanctioned individuals and entities includes members of the European Parliament, Dutch Parliament, and Belgian Federal Parliament, as well as the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union, the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark. The sanctioned individuals are prohibited from traveling to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao, or doing business with China. The recent China-EU tensions over the Uyghur issue may also affect the implementation of the China-EU investment pact (formally known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, CAI), which was signed by both sides in December 2020 but is awaiting ratification by the European Parliament. Some EU parliamentarians have stated that they will oppose the CAI due to human rights and labor rights abuses in China. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said that the EU “cannot talk about cooperation on one hand, and impose sanctions to harm China’s rights and benefits on another.”

Xinjiang Cotton Issue

The Xinjiang region produces more than 20 percent of the world’s cotton and 84 percent of China’s cotton. Reports indicate that more than half a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang have been forced to pick cotton in the region. In January, the United States began restricting the entry of all cotton products and tomatoes from Xinjiang, as well as products from other countries that use cotton and tomatoes from the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on April 11 that the international community needs to ensure that countries are not selling China products that can be used to repress Uyghurs, while also not importing Chinese goods that are derived from coerced labor.

Following the wave of Western sanctions against China, the Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League (中國共產主義青年團) posted Swedish clothing store H&M’s 2020 statement expressing concern over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang on its Weibo account. The Youth League’s March 24 post read: “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” The backlash from China’s state media and Chinese netizens was swift and stridently nationalistic in tone. H&M, whose fourth-largest market is in China, literally disappeared overnight from Chinese maps, apps, and online marketplaces. China’s calls for boycotting H&M also expanded to other mostly Western retailers that objected to Xinjiang cotton, including Nike, Adidas, Converse, Calvin Klein, Zara, and Burberry. Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin (胡錫進) argued that Western companies operating in the Chinese market “must act with respect to China.” Hu pointed out that “H&M, Nike, and others are now suffering heavy losses to their reputations in the Chinese market.” Beijing utilized the high tide of Chinese nationalism to punish Western companies that sought to chastise the Chinese government over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Taiwan’s Shifting Attention on the Uyghurs

While Taiwan’s interest in Uyghur issues had been experiencing a general decline over the past several decades, it has risen again in recent years. After the Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) government provided assistance to Muslim refugees from Northwest China, including Hui, Uyghur, and Kazakh ethnic groups, who fled Chinese communist rule for Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey. [1] As the ROC Constitution placed a heavy emphasis on China’s territorial integrity, the ROC before and after 1949 sought to maintain sovereignty over all regions of China and nominally opposed Uyghur (East Turkestan) and Tibetan separatism. [2] Taipei’s attention to overseas Uyghur communities was initially influenced by the KMT’s desire to reclaim mainland China. However, this focus later shifted as successive Taiwanese administrations relinquished visions of taking back far-flung territories that were clearly outside the ROC’s administrative control.

This process of de-sinicization was launched under Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who sought to abolish the Cabinet-level Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC, 蒙藏委員會). Despite its name, the commission—which was established in China in 1928—was not just focused on administration of Mongolia and Tibet; rather, it was inclusive of Xinjiang and Muslim ethnic minority groups. [3] Today, its successor is the Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center (蒙藏文化中心), a unit under Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MOC, 文化部). Taipei recognized Mongolia as an independent country in 2002, though sovereignty claims to Mongolia remain unchanged in the ROC Constitution. As the Chen Administration started to move away from historical sovereignty claims and focus more on territories under Taiwan’s current control, there was also an accompanying national indifference towards developments in China, including the state of Uyghur affairs.

Arguably, over the past several decades, Uyghur affairs have not been a prominent issue in Taiwan’s political and social consciousness. This trend can be explained by several factors, including Taipei’s overwhelming focus on the island’s own precarious security situation, the dearth of social or economic ties between Taiwan and Xinjiang, and the lack of ethnic or cultural affinity between Han Taiwanese and Uyghurs. Despite its solidarity with pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese government has been reluctant to publicly advocate on behalf of human rights for Tibetans and Uyghurs for fear of irritating Beijing. For example, Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, was denied visas to attend religious freedom forums in Taiwan by both the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administrations. The Tsai Administration also reportedly prevented the Dalai Lama and Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer from attending the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Forum in May 2019. These decisions by Taipei could be the result of a calculation that there were no visible benefits from confronting Beijing over its treatment of its ethnic minority groups.

The Rising Profile of Uyghur Issues in Taiwan

However, Taipei’s calculations on the Uyghur issue may be changing as a result of Xi Jinping’s (習近平) strong-arm tactics towards wayward regions, as well as new developments in US-China relations. Following the Chinese government’s efforts to subjugate Xinjiang and Hong Kong in recent years, Taiwan has quickly become Beijing’s next target. Xinjiang has become a testing ground for China’s ideological re-education and mass surveillance tactics, which have provided lessons for Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong. Therefore, it would behoove Taipei to understand the interlinkages between developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and their implications for the island. More importantly, China’s mass internment of Uyghurs has not only garnered unprecedented international attention, but has also become a major point of friction in the growing major-power competition between China and the West, as well as an important test case for the Biden Administration’s values-based approach towards China.

Taipei seems to understand the importance of supporting the United States and European Union in raising the banner of Uyghur human and labor rights. In light of Taiwanese celebrities supporting the Xinjiang cotton movement, President Tsai wrote in a Facebook post on March 26 that “human rights are a universal value” and urged the Chinese government to stop oppressing the Uyghurs. This view was echoed by KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who said that the religious and labor rights of all people in Xinjiang should be guaranteed and respected. There is also ongoing discussion about whether Taiwan will ban imports of Xinjiang cotton. Premier Su Tseng-chang stated that while there are currently no plans to do so, Taiwan should not be left outside of the efforts of major democracies that are sanctioning Beijing on the Uyghur issue. Taiwan’s Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua (王美花) said that the government will follow the lead of international organizations on the cotton issue, and that Taiwan’s industry will also comply with the requirements set forth by foreign companies that ban Xinjiang cotton.

In sum, it is imperative for Taipei to support Western-led efforts on the Uyghur human rights issue, which is indirectly tied to its own desire to gain broader regional and international support amid growing security threats from China. If Taiwan takes on the issue of forced labor products, it would need to conduct an in-depth examination of Taiwanese imports from China and other countries that have origins in Xinjiang, including not only cotton, but also textiles, electronics, and agricultural goods such as tomatoes. In the current struggle between Western liberal values and Chinese authoritarian values, Taipei has only one path, which is to shed its previous political indifference and actively promote Uyghur human rights.

The main point: The Xinjiang cotton issue has raised the profile of Uyghur human and labor rights in Taiwan. Accordingly, Taipei should support Western-led efforts to oppose Chinese oppression in Xinjiang.

[1] 平山光將 (Masamitsu Hirayama), “邊政或僑務? 中華民國政府遷臺後對中東地區西北穆斯林難民的政策”(“Border Policy or Overseas Chinese Affairs? The ROC Government’s Policy towards Northwest Muslim Refugees in the Middle East after Retreating to Taiwan”), conference paper presented at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History, July 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mei-hua Lan, “From Lifanyuan to the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission,” Managing Frontiers in Qing China: the Lifanyuan and Libu Revisited, edited by Dittmar Schorkowitz and Ning Chia, Vol. 35, November 2016, p.343.