“China is stopping the Uyghur genocide,” said the banners held by demonstrators in front of the Chinese consulate in Adelaide, Australia on March 31. Members of the Uighur community traveled through Australia to protest the newly expanded consulate, along with supporters from Hong Kong, Falun Gong and Tibet. Some Uyghurs held up photos demanding the return of their family members and disappeared from the camps in Xinjiang.
The protest came a week after the United States, the European Union, Canada and the United Kingdom coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials involved in atrocities in Xinjiang. Australia welcomed the sanctions in a joint statement with New Zealand, but did not use sanctions of their own.
In what appeared to be a bureaucratic hiccup, Australia was included in the United States’ first declaration. But Australia was unable to commit to coordinated sanctions for one simple reason: it has yet to pass its own legislation under the American Magnitsky Act. Magnitsky-style laws typically allow governments to impose travel and financial sanctions on foreigners who have committed human rights abuses or have been involved in significant corruption.
And China was not included in the list of the eight countries that can be sanctioned under the autonomous regime of Australia (sanctions that are carried out without the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council). The existing legislation would need to be changed to include China. This process takes about six months. This was the explanation why Australia did not take part in the coordinated action last month.
This could change soon. Australia is under increasing pressure to pass Magnitsky-style laws – from the public, parliament and overseas partners.
A non-partisan parliamentary committee spent 2020 reading posts and hearing witnesses about the need for such targeted sanctions and published a report in December 2020 calling on Magnitsky to become law in Australia. Bills have even been added to the report to speed up the process.
The public supports it too: The Lowy Institute’s annual poll shows that 8 in 10 Australians want travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials for human rights violations. After years of controversy, including attacks by Chinese state media and State Department spokespersons on Australia, China’s opinion in Australia is at a record low. Even in the Sino-Australian community, which is generally more positive about China, these sanctions are widely supported.
The Biden government will also be closely monitoring Australia’s moves. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken backed Australia by calling out China’s obvious economic coercion, he made it clear in a recent speech to NATO that he is turning to partners and allies in Washington’s efforts to thwart Beijing’s ambitions if necessary.
Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne told a Senate committee last week that she agreed that Australia needed levers that did more than just make statements. She said she wrote to the Prime Minister about her response to the committee report.
But the legislation hasn’t made it to the bottom – at least not yet. Canberra insiders say 2021 is the year. But a government plagued by multiple rape allegations and an upcoming federal election has seen sanctions on the priority list.
There’s another reason Australia may have sluggish sanctions on Xinjiang: the country is still surging from a full year of targeted economic grief, thanks to the Chinese government (and China typically receives around 40 percent of Australia’s exports). While the Australian government has not blinked any of the irritants that hastened the relationship’s demise, there remains a reluctance to add unnecessary fuel to the fire. This is especially true for human rights issues. While Australia has been at the forefront of national security implications or sovereignty – like foreign interference or Chinese technology – Australia, it has been less willing to take concrete action on human rights issues. Australia has preferred to make statements about the deteriorating institutions in Hong Kong or express strong concern about Xinjiang.
Australia does not include human rights protection in its trade agreements, as the United States and the EU often do. It has not ratified the International Labor Organization’s Forced Labor Protocol, which could restrict the importation of goods into Australia that were made using forced labor in Xinjiang. Australia has also failed to follow international examples of genocide labeling the Xinjiang crisis as the government blocked similar resolutions by independent senators.
Part of it addresses a government that is skeptical of multilateralism and increases sovereignty over collective action. International criticism of the treatment of refugees in Australia has been largely ignored. The Australian Prime Minister has repeatedly proclaimed “negative globalism”, which refers to the idea that international institutions demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues. The question of Xinjiang has so far not been classified in Australia as a risk to the complicity of Australians and the Australian economy, but as a question of international human rights representation.
This pick-and-mix approach to China policy was sustained under the unpredictable administration of former US President Donald Trump, who was only slightly more popular in Australia than Chinese President Xi Jinping. Defending international norms becomes easier under the Biden government’s approach to allies. But it will mean more difficult choices for Australia.
The pressure on Australia to pass these laws is nothing like what would follow to actually apply them. Australia is already under fire for failing to increase its existing sanctions against the junta in Myanmar following the military coup and the subsequent murder of civilians there.
If Australia passes its version of Magnitsky legislation – and we are told it is a matter of when, not of case – it will be in the unfortunate position of catching up with like-minded countries. Japan also evaluates its position on sanctions as it faces increasing pressure from politicians and companies to talk about Xinjiang.
Although China did not participate in the coordinated sanctions, China’s whataboutism has already reached Australia in response to criticism of its Xinjiang policies. Original “Wolf Warrior” diplomat Zhao Lijian tweeted that Australia’s offshore processing centers for potential refugees have been dubbed “concentration camps” by some critics. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also declined, asking when the Five Eyes would hold Australia accountable for its alleged war crimes in Afghanistan or the mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
The retaliation Australia would face if it were to impose sanctions would likely be similar to what the UK, Canada and the EU face. In the case of Australia, key lawmakers and researchers are already banned from traveling to China.
However, Australia must pass its own Magnitsky-style laws, if only to expand the policy tools it has at its disposal to cope with the rise in authoritarianism around the world.
But more could be done – not just by Canberra, but by others as well. Depressingly, the sanctions against Xinjiang are aimed at ensuring that Australia is not involved in genocide rather than improving the plight of the Uyghurs and other minorities. Measures banning forced labor could do even more to shift the cost-benefit analysis for companies operating in the region.
These sanctions will not change Beijing’s calculations in the short term – if at all, it has doubled as a result of its cotton campaign in Xinjiang. However, there is a chance that this collective signaling could set off warning bells about the Beijing 2022 Olympics. Demand for a boycott of the Games will only increase in the West (although Australia, in particular, has not joined the United States to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics).
China will try to persuade and force the full international participation of countries and sponsors in the Olympics. coordinated sanctions measures could pose further obstacles to this national project. The passage of an Australian Magnitsky Act is just the beginning. For Australia there is more pressure and more difficult decisions.