Political activism in Hong Kong has hardly been a carefree pursuit since the handover. But things have become rather less calm in recent months. A few days ago, the Chinese-imposed executive mounted a mass arrest of the same democratic politicians whose successes in recent elections so embarrassed Beijing. They were detained under the national security law that was finally enacted in June, which attracted great protest and condemnation due in no small part to the capacity it contained for actions just like this.
A few weeks ago, China arrested a group of young activists under similar pretences; and a little before that, in September, it had the advocate of democracy Joshua Wong – a famous face of protest – detained for an act of unlawful assembly apparently perpetrated the year before.
In Britain this week, meanwhile, a different story of Chinese significance has prompted the creation of new policy. The foreign secretary Dominic Raab spoke on Tuesday about the situation in Xinjiang, where evidence mounts daily that China has not only imprisoned millions of members of the Uighur minority, but also put the inhabitants of its camps to work, servicing the wheels of its economy with what is in effect slave labour.
This has been known for a while – both the camps and their contents. The reporting which Raab referenced – of mass surveillance, large-scale imprisonment for political crimes, the pervasive undermining of Uighur birth rates – piles up, and has done so for several years. But on forced labour specifically, there is also quite a backlog.
An extensive report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in early 2020 used satellite imagery and local sources to identify the camps, and to describe the journeys of their residents into factories and onto assembly lines. It charts how Uighurs ended up sewing Nike shoes in the Taekwang factory complex in Shandong province, with others working on factory floors producing products in Zhengzhou for Apple and parts of cars for Volkswagen.
Naturally these people work for little pay and move only at the will of the state, not their own. Their workdays over, they are prompted, at their captors’ request, to sing patriotic songs.
Enough of this stuff is subcontracted to make it deniable. The companies named above, and in the report, do their best to claim that they have investigated and found no evidence of forced labour in their own supply chains. But such deniability collapses in the face of more reporting.
Not only have Chinese authorities spoken obliquely about moving around “surplus labour’ to serve in far-flung factories; now it seems the authorities in Xinjiang have begun building factories within the camps themselves.
Raab’s initiative intends to prevent British firms from doing business, and purchasing material, from firms which are a part of this system. It’s upstanding stuff, quite in keeping with any image of a “Global Britain’. But there are other lessons to draw from recent events.
Gathering momentum late last year, there was a flurry of commentary pressing the United States to ditch the one China policy and recognise Taiwan as an independent and autonomous state apart from the mainland. This was prompted by two things, widely perceived.
The first was China’s total domination of Hong Kong, both legal and practical – something contrary to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and every assurance made since the handover. The second was a series of portents which suggested a coming use of force.
China increased both its military activity and its issuing of threats against Taiwan. Many organs of the Chinese state spoke of a coming struggle between the two countries. And since Xi Jinping ascended to leadership eight years ago, he has spoken of solving the Taiwan issue, presumably by force, within his time in power. This marks an escalation of even that understanding.
As China massed troops across the Formosa Strait, something akin to panic began to take hold in western policy circles. With the world knocked sideways by a pandemic – and hardly helped by China in the process – and an American election upcoming which would likely be disputed, some saw great danger in the near term. Between November and January, a few went so far as to predict, if the American election could not be neatly decided and the world were otherwise occupied, China could simply cross the strait and begin to invade.
Naturally, this did not quite occur.
As fanciful as all these stories of landings which never occurred can seem, the problem this represents was hardly allayed by the progress of the American election; and nor will it disappear with a new man in the White House. All those threats remain. The military build-up has hardly ceased. And the problem of Taiwan, in China’s eyes, has hardly diminished.
Other things have hardly taken the country’s mind of future conflict. It can subjugate an errant province in Hong Kong and stock factories the country over with involuntary labour, all while planning to conquer a neighbouring island – especially one which is not recognised by the United Nations.
As the coercive hold of the Chinese state on Hong Kong becomes irreversible, there is one lesson among many that it will pay to learn.
It is that China is not bound by ties of convention or obligation. Those things which might be hoped to constrain a budding imperial power do not hold China back. In fact, they are worth less than the paper they are printed on and are worthless when taken to heart.
Disentangling British industry from China’s system of impressed labour is one thing. But recognising the inevitable requires more than making statements to that effect in the House of Commons.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.