LONDON — Britain should take a much tougher stance on trade with China through import bans to guard against forced labor, and should urge its firms to boycott advertising at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, according to a new report by U.K. lawmakers.
This should extend to financially sanctioning companies that knowingly do business with Chinese firms tied to human rights violations in their supply chains, MPs on the cross-party foreign affairs committee say.
“If we choose not to, we’re nesting the dragon deeper and deeper into our national life,” said Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the committee. The British public has, he said, an expectation that Britain will stand up for “defense of the rule of law” and “fair competition in trade.”
The report focuses on China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population in the country’s Xinjiang province. The U.S. calls that treatment a “genocide.” Uyghur campaigners say China is controlling the population there through rape, forced sterilizations, brainwashing in camps, and the destruction of mosques.
Britain can push back against these abuses, the report argues, by wielding trade as a tool of foreign policy. In the year to the end of the first quarter of 2021, the two countries traded a total of £84.6 billion in goods and services, ranking China among Britain’s top five single-country trade partners.
MPs urge the government to consider “a ban on the import of all cotton products” made in Xinjiang, a source of much of the world’s cotton and a major hub for global supply chains.
“We call out cotton specifically because we know we have absolute clarity” it is produced through forced Uighur labor, said Conservative MP Alicia Kearns. She said the committee would like to see “a ban on all products from the province.”
There are “huge problems” around polysilicon as well, as about 40 percent of the solar panels imported for U.K. projects were made in Xinjiang through firms linked to forced labor, said Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) — a coalition of lawmakers from democracies working on China issues.
There are also concerns about tomatoes, PPE, and cotton, de Pulford added, “to say nothing of tech giants which serve the UK and which are bound up in the exploitation” of the Uyghurs.
Such a ban would be in line with World Trade Organization rules barring goods from states that engage in slave labor, Tugendhat told POLITICO during a briefing ahead of the report’s launch. “There’s already a human rights provision that can be exercised,” he said.
No import controls
The report also calls on the government to discourage British businesses from sponsoring or advertising at the Olympics — an issue set to be debated in the House of Commons next Thursday.
The committee urges the U.K.’s trade department to publish an urgent review of export controls that apply to Xinjiang. The exercise was ordered by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in January to “prevent the export of any goods that could contribute directly or indirectly to human rights violations in that region,” but has yet to see the light of day.
“We have no import controls whatsoever in place to prevent goods from the Uyghur region hitting our shelves,” said de Pulford, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim to the contrary.
The committee wants fines for firms that don’t comply with the U.K.’s existing Modern Slavery Act as well as new legislation that will compel businesses to remove forced labor from their supply chains.
“We support the foreign affairs committee’s recommendation for a mandatory duty on companies to prevent and act on abuses in the supply chains,” said Stephen Russell, a policy officer at the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group for labor unions. “Without it,” he added, “too many companies will look the other way while fundamental rights are disregarded.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said the government will “carefully consider the findings of this report.” Britain, they added, has already “announced measures to help ensure no U.K. organisations are complicit in these violations through their supply chains.”
Yet these measures have not been implemented, the MPs charge. “It’s time for big-boy politics,” said Kearns, the Conservative lawmaker. “If we are not speaking up for those [China] seeks to silence, who will do it?”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.