top of page

Our main trading partner is involved in systematic torture. What now?

By Peter Hartcher

Political and International Editor

September 6, 2022

So what does Australia do now? Now that the UN commissioner for human rights has published the formal finding – that our main trading partner is inflicting all manner of systematic torture on its Uyghur people.

Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, last week delivered her long-awaited UN report on China’s repression of its Uyghur minority, and some other predominantly Muslim groups.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.

After visiting China and interviewing a wide range of former detainees, she concluded that the Chinese government was committing mass violations of human rights. Still. After five years of shocking abuse. And five years of lying about it.

The good news is that she proved that Beijing has not yet altogether silenced the UN. But the pressure Beijing applied in trying to censor her was evident – Bachelet released her report just 11 minutes before her term as high commissioner expired. It was literally 11 minutes to midnight in Geneva.

None of the information she unearthed was entirely new. After all, it was in 2017 that the voice of the free Uyghurs – Rebiya Kadeer – visited Australia and said that more than 1 million Uyghurs had been arbitrarily locked up in mass concentration camps, including all 37 members of her extended family, including 11 children under the age of 10.

“Children aged two to 12 are taken from their families into state custody, girls are given forced sterilisation so they can’t give birth to any more Uyghur children,” she told me through an interpreter last year.

“Some Uyghur women are forced into marriage with Chinese men. A further method is forced transfer of Uyghur workers into factories in other parts of China where the Chinese workers are allowed to leave the factories but the Uyghur workers are not.”

And they are held in detention for brainwashing or, as Kadeer calls it, “brain reformatting”. Denied the right to practise Islam, forced to speak Mandarin Chinese only, beards shaved, mosques purged. Some die under torture, including Kadeer’s sister. There’s no way of knowing the total number of dead.

We’ve seen lots of evidence, including a BBC documentary on the detention camps and the leak of official Chinese government documents which show that China’s President Xi Jinping personally urged his officials to “show no mercy” in implementing the campaign. The campaign’s name? “Strike Hard”.

So what’s new about the UN report? “What was new were the first-hand interviews, and that does corroborate previous findings,” says the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson. “These are most serious offences – the report clearly says they may be crimes against humanity.”

Also new is that this is a report of the UN, and could now form the basis of formal resolutions in the UN. Naturally, “the Chinese government will fight this tooth and nail,” Pearson says.

Is Beijing practising the gravest possible crime against humanity: genocide? The government of the US has said so. So have the parliaments of Canada, the Netherlands, France, Britain and Lithuania. Neither Australia’s government nor parliament has done so. Yet. The two major parties have been anxious to avoid upsetting China’s rulers.

So what does Australia do now? According to the tiny Australian Uyghur community of some 2500 people, and human rights activists, this is what Australia should do. First, Australia has a new tool in its policy kit designed for precisely such human rights outrages – Magnitsky sanctions. The parliament passed these into law last year. They allow the foreign affairs minister to impose sanctions on named offenders, the foreign government officials who commit violations.

This would mean Penny Wong could ban individual officials from travelling to Australia, from owning property in Australia, and from stashing cash and other assets in Australia.

Why should the world’s worst torturers be allowed to enjoy the benefits and liberties of a country dedicated to protecting individual rights? In the words of a government explanation, these sanctions are to “ensure that we do not become an isolated, attractive safe haven for such people and entities, and their ill-gotten gains”. What a good idea!

Second, Australia could ban any goods, such as clothing and textiles, made with the use of forced labour. That’s one of the many abuses inflicted on the Uyghurs by Xi’s regime. Labor has promised to review the toothless existing Modern Slavery Act and give it some teeth. Bring it on.

Third, Australia should do more to support the Australian Uyghurs who are put under unconscionable pressure by Chinese Communist Party operatives and agents here in Australia. They are surveilled, followed and harassed in Australia. The Chinese regime pressures them to return “home” to China.

Fourth, “Australia could be doing more to create a broader coalition of governments concerned about the violations,” Pearson says. Pointedly, she calls on the Muslim majority nations of Malaysia and Indonesia to do more. They have spoken out against abuses in Myanmar but fall silent when China is mentioned.

These are all modest yet practical and positive steps that Wong and her colleagues in like-minded countries should consider. Would Xi respond with yet more sanctions against Australia? Maybe. But maybe not; the earlier ones have only backfired on Beijing.

Longer term, Australia needs to dilute Beijing’s coercive economic capability over us. The big new regional trade agreement for the region – the CPTPP – which excludes China and the US, could be the forum for intensifying trade between what trade expert Tim Harcourt calls “friendlies”.

Conducting less trade with hostile autocracies and more trade with friendlies “is not first best, but in a world where one partner is hostile, it’s all you’ve got”.

One thing is certain. On the current trajectory, Xi’s regime is succeeding. As Kadeer tells me: “I believe the Chinese Communist Party is achieving its goal. Their final goal is the total extermination of the Uyghur people.”


bottom of page