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Europe’s politicians (but not its businesses) speak out after UN report on China abuses

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European reaction to a scathing U.N. report on Chinese human rights abuses lays bare a deep EU strategic vulnerability: While politicians can speak out against Beijing, companies are too exposed to China’s massive market to do so.

On Wednesday, a U.N. report gave detailed evidence of detention, sex crimes and family separation in the western region of Xinjiang, where Muslim Uyghurs are the majority. The U.N. concluded that China’s acts “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Saying that the EU “welcomes” the release of the U.N. report, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the situation in Xinjiang required “urgent attention” by China, the U.N. and “the international community more broadly.”

One EU diplomat said the U.N. presented “the maximum evidence possible,” while another said there were prompt discussions within the 27 countries on Thursday about next steps, including potentially in the upcoming session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

A third diplomat, describing the document as “tougher than anything else I’ve seen from the U.N.,” said it came at an inconvenient time for Beijing given that the U.N. General Assembly meeting will take place in less than three weeks.

Raphaël Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament and outspoken critic of China over Xinjiang who’s sanctioned by Beijing, commended the long-overdue report. “The EU can and should do much more to put pressure on Beijing [including] a full and immediate import ban on the products of slavery,” he said, adding that he would push for further sanctions on Chinese officials.

Another MEP blacklisted by Beijing, Reinhard Bütikofer, who chairs the European Parliament’s China delegation, expects the U.N. report to have consequences for future EU-China relations.

“The topic of the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang should be raised in every official contact between European institutions and member states’ governments with the Beijing government. I do hope that the confirmation through this U.N. report of so many revelations that have been available over the years would also induce some countries particularly in the Muslim world and in the wider Global South to re-evaluate their attitude in the past on these issues,” said Bütikofer.

By contrast, corporate reaction was conspicuous by its absence. This is an increasingly critical matter as fears are growing that Europe’s dependence on Chinese supply chains potentially raises even more strategic problems than reliance on Russian gas.

For Germany, in particular, dependence is a particular concern. POLITICO reached out to the BDI, the leading German industry association, for comment but a spokesman said the group would not offer any comments on the issue on Thursday.

Herbert Diess also insisted that Volkswagen’s presence in Xinjiang had “a positive impact.” | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Coincidentally, the report overlapped with the departure of Volkswagen Chief Executive Herbert Diess, who has remained committed to Xinjiang operations. He said recently that the auto giant would not close the small factory there which had been in operation for a decade, and added that there was no forced labor in that particular plant. Diess also insisted that Volkswagen’s presence in Xinjiang had “a positive impact.”

Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment from POLITICO on the EU report.

Forced labor bill

The EU will later this month introduce a draft bill to ban products made with forced labor from being sold on the EU market — a bill intended to target China for its reported use of forced labor in Xinjiang. It’s still unclear, however, how the EU will go about that. MEPs want an embargo at the EU’s borders on imports and exports of products made under duress, rather than allowing the goods to enter the EU market freely before investigating them and potentially removing them from store shelves. But the Commission had worries such measures might fall foul of international trade law.

A fourth EU diplomat with a focus on climate diplomacy said the U.N. report could impact the sourcing of solar power panels, with Xinjiang accounting for a majority of the supply of polysilicon, an essential material for the panels.

In the U.K., Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who positions herself as a China hawk in the race to be the next prime minister, said the U.N. report “includes harrowing evidence, including first-hand accounts from victims, that shames China in the eyes of the international community”.

“U.N. member states must now be given the opportunity to consider the report fully,” she said. “We will continue to act with international partners to bring about a change in China’s actions, and immediately end its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

The French foreign ministry resorted to diplomacy in a statement, calling on China to end human rights violations. “France attaches importance to the continued careful monitoring of the findings of this report by the United Nations,” it said.

A statement by the German foreign ministry focused on forced labor. “There must be no forced labor. That is why we have created the Due Diligence Act at national level and are campaigning at EU level for further instruments to combat forced labor in supply chains. We will discuss the consequences of the report with our partners in the EU and the United Nations,” a ministry spokesman said.

“We have long called for this report and welcome its publication. It confirms that there is cause for grave concern … We call on the Chinese government to immediately grant all people in Xinjiang their full human rights. All those arbitrarily detained must be released immediately. We again call on the Chinese government to allow further independent investigation into these allegations of gross human rights violations in China,” he added.

Beijing, on the other hand, is furious about the U.N. report. At a regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin described the report as “completely illegal and void.”

“This proves once again that the [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] has become a thug and accomplice of the U.S. and the West,” he said.

Hans von der Burchard and Joshua Posaner contributed to this report.

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