• Antonio Meleca

Values vs Profits: Is China committing genocide?


Multiple western nations, led by the United States (US), accuse the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of genocide targeting ethnic minorities in the country’s most north-western region, Xinjiang. The PRC, backed by dozens of international supporters, pushes back inviting the US-led block to stay out of domestic affairs.

This paper aims to give a deeper look into the international debate regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) actions in Xinjiang, with a specific lens on its influence on western values.

First, it explores the creation of the two opposing blocks of thought on the matter, by looking at the two letters submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Afterwards, the paper dives into the economic ties, with central importance given to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), between China and all international actors on either side and more. The paper also gives a final look at two specific country cases, Canada and Italy, questioning the policy choices they have taken towards the CCP.


Several Western countries have imposed sanctions on officials in China over rights abuses against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority group, present in China’s Xinjiang region. The sanctions were introduced as a coordinated effort by the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK), the US and Canada. These are a few among the multiple countries to have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang [1].

China denies all allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, claiming its system of re-education camps is there to combat separatism and Islamist militancy in the region. In fact, in an interview last April, the Chinese ambassador to Italy strongly underlined China’s stance on the matter. The ambassador claimed that the problems present in the region do not regard human rights, but rather counter-terrorism and deradicalization. He also strongly underlined China’s international right of domestic sovereignty, stating Xinjiang as a Chinese territory and thus an internal matter [2].

Creation of Two Blocks

In July 2019, ambassadors from 22 states [3], including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the UK sent a letter to the UNHRC condemning the treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang by the CCP and urged the closure of the internment camps. Within days, a growing number of up to 50 states [4], including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, the Philippines, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and the United Arab Emirates - all with political stances and strong economic interests that bind them to Beijing - had replied with a letter supporting the policies implemented in Xinjiang [5].

This letter exchange, between 50 supporters and 22 critics of the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang, demonstrates how the party has grown its economic leverage and political influence over other voting members at the UNHCR to advocate for its own positions, and to weaken legal and procedural frameworks of the international human rights regime [6]. Furthermore, as early as March 2019 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OCI) had released a document that "praised the efforts of the People's Republic of China in providing assistance to its Muslim citizens" [7].

The EU had already raised the issue of human rights in Xinjiang through the voice of High Representative Federica Mogherini, who reported on the issue to the European Parliament in October 2018 [8]. This helped pave the way for future actions. In fact, on March 22, 2021, the Council of the EU sanctioned officials from the PRC in response to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang [9].

The US, in June 2019, came to threaten to impose sanctions [10] in Beijing if the re-education camp system, which the US stated as internment camp system, was not dismantled. Almost a year after its approval in the US Senate, the "Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act" was in fact signed by President Donald Trump on June 17, 2020, thus becoming federal law [10]. With this act, several US government bodies are required to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Based on the results, the country could then decide to act, including sanctions. The Biden administration has not reversed this point in their foreign policy. Rather they have followed the trend by imposing new sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights violations [12].

Two separate blocks are emerging in the world: one led by the United States, and the other by China. However, the split is not as black and white as it may seem, not in the “west” at least.

Importance of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

The launch of the BRI has further aggravated the level of complexity of security issues in Xinjiang. The region is in fact crossed by three of the five economic corridors that characterize the infrastructural component of the ambitious Chinese project. Xinjiang is therefore an obligatory passage in the New Silk Road projects. The internal stability of this region has now become a key priority for Beijing's foreign policy as well as for security [13].

Furthermore, apart from the geographical split between the first two tables below, of East and West, we can visualize the intrinsic economic and political ties the BRI helps foster. Practically, all 50 States and authorities that have signed in the CCP’s favor are members of the BRI. What is even more interesting is noting states that abstained from choosing a side. Table three depicts the 18 EU member states within the BRI and highlights the 13 nations which decided not to adopt a position. This deeply underlines how economic ties are growingly challenging “western values” in many nations.


Table 1 (left): The list of 22 states that signed the “First letter” to the UNHCR. Table 2 (middle): The list of 50 states that signed the “Second letter” to the UNHCR. Check marks indicate countries that either were or have become members of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Table 3 (right): The list of 18 EU countries that are members of the BRI. Check marks indicate countries that signed the “First letter” to the UNHCR. (Sources: UNHCR & Silk Road Briefing)

Western hesitancy in taking a full stance: the cases of Canada & Italy

In the case of Canada, the second country after the United States to recognize China's actions as genocide and signatory of the “first letter” to the UNHCR, their stance is not so clear-cut internally. Canada may not be a member of the BRI, however, China was their second most important trading partner in 2020 [14].

Canada's House of Commons voted to declare China's treatment of its Uyghur minority population a genocide. The motion, which passed overwhelmingly, was supported by all opposition parties and a handful of lawmakers from the governing Liberal Party. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most members of his cabinet abstained [15].

The Canadian Prime Minister has hesitated to use the word genocide, which he called an “extremely loaded” term. Further stating that “when it comes to the application of the very specific word genocide, we simply need to ensure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed before a determination like that is made” [16].

Even more apparent is hesitancy in the case of Italy. While Italy is not the first EU member to become a member of the BRI, it is the largest EU economy and the first G-7 member to do so [17]. Therefore, its economic ties with China, which are less important than those with the US and fellow EU nations, are still of fundamental importance [18].

After choosing to not sign either letter sent to the UNHCR, an intense internal political debate delayed taking an international stance by the nation. For many months the debate was very heated, mainly within the majority coalition.

On the one hand, the center-right, “Lega” and “Fratelli d'Italia” in support of the use of the term genocide, just like the US, Canada, the Netherlands etc. On the other hand, the Democratic Party with the 5 Star Movement and “Italia Viva”. They pushed for a resolution requiring the private sector for human rights due diligence in China regarding supply chains, with concrete action in the event of non-compliance with international standards. The substantial difference with respect to the proposals of the “Lega” and “Fratelli d'Italia” lies in the absence of the word genocide [19]. Adoption of the term has serious consequences for the international imagine the CCP tries to maintain and thus creates unwanted tensions with the nation.

After postponing the debate, all Italian political forces, majority and opposition, finally came up with their final statement. However, the most controversial word, genocide, was removed. The new unitary text does not speak of genocide but nevertheless asks the government to take a series of countermeasures, even in the EU.

Among these, a "firm stance" towards the Chinese government for sanctions against members of the European Parliament for the opinions expressed on respect for human rights in China. Then the request to "EU partners" to ascertain in international fora "suspected cases of systematic domestic violation of human rights" and to support "the request for free and unrestricted access to Xinjiang for the UNHCR”, as well as the sending to the region of “observers, experts, members of civil society and parliamentarians” [20].


The creation of two blocks can be viewed as a new “East / West” conflict. However, this is an oversimplification. This is due to the CCP’s ever-growing international influence and economic ties, mainly with BRI member states. It is not a “simple” ideological rift, as in the Cold War, but rather a division that puts in question the very ideological stances western powers have taken for several decades.

The highly noticeable connection between economic ties with China and the signing of the “Second letter” to the UNHCR is blatant. Furthermore, with a slightly more profound observation, the connection between Chinese economic ties and countries that choose to abstain from signing either letter or opted-out on using the term genocide, are revealing.

The actions taken by the Canadian PM and his cabinet, in contrast with the House of Commons, is a particular tactical move. On the first hand, it allows Canada to stand side-by-side with their historic international partners. However, on the other hand, it allows the governing party to maintain a sort of ambiguous stance in the CCP’s regards, which helps foster economic relations, but undermines the nation’s democratically voted stance.

The initial clear divide amongst the Italian coalition, which eventually brought the nation to opt-out of using the word genocide strongly underlines the strategic importance China has gained in the last few decades. The Italians may have taken a firm stance against China’s retaliation towards EU officials and pushed for further investigations in the Xinjiang region, however, their choosing to not use the word genocide is a major victory for the PRC. In a more unambiguous divide of East and West and with a less economically relevant China, Italy would have not hesitated in following American international policy.

The two examples given earlier, Canada and especially Italy, help bring us to question the genuineness of “western values”. Does the west value its values more than a profit? In the midst of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty answering this question only grows harder.


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BENSADOUN Emerald, 2021. “Vote passes recognizing China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide”, Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/7655145/conservatives-liberals-uighur-genocide-vote/

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