Last month the governor of Xinjiang, the Chinese region where the UN warns that crimes against humanity may be taking place against interned Uyghur Muslims, was planning a trip to Europe. It was an initiative from which no one emerged with credit.

Erkin Tuniyaz’s visit became a political trap for officials in London and Brussels, who agreed to a meeting but were then criticised by other politicians and activists. A Kazakh survivor of the camps filed a legal request for Tuniyaz’s arrest upon arrival. After much embarrassment all round, the trip was called off.

The episode illuminated a deeper issue with European engagement on Xinjiang. Beyond the issue of who to meet and when to sanction, there is a broader question: what are the achievable goals for European governments in trying to end alleged atrocities in Xinjiang — and if there are no such goals, what can be done?

Robust engagement can be used to challenge human rights violations, UK officials said. It is also required for relationship-building, mutual understanding and fact-finding. On the latter, it can be argued that a meeting with Xinjiang officials could help European governments sniff out any changes in policy. But this requires a well-assembled group of regional experts who can read Chinese intentions.

The debacle of last year’s UN investigation into Xinjiang suggests that there is little room for engagement to influence China. Before the release of the report, some officials such as Michelle Bachelet, then the UN high commissioner for human rights, were concerned about alienating China and favoured engagement instead. The delayed report, when eventually published, ended up alienating Beijing anyway: China’s ambassador to the UN announced that it “closed the door of co-operation”. When a regime is unwilling to answer any criticism, there is no space for trust-building.

Engagement and criticism are both tools that should be measured by their results, depending on the situation. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Beijing will see all criticism as a black-and-white exercise in marking friends and foes.

That is not to say that China is never influenced by western actions when it comes to Xinjiang. Unfortunately, much of this influence in the past has been detrimental. The use of algorithmic predictions in police work was first pioneered in the US and then the UK, in the form of “intelligence-led policing”, particularly after the 9/11 attacks.

In response to international media coverage, Beijing has changed some of its tactics. As evidence accumulated of atrocities in the region, Beijing went from denying the existence of mass internment camps in late 2018 to changing Xinjiang’s laws to formally recognise “vocational training centres”.

The few journalists who have visited since late 2019 have found evidence of some re-education camp closures, but such evidence is spotty. Activists and scholars warn that detainees are being moved into the formal prison system and into community-based surveillance programmes that are less visible.

The patchiness of news from Xinjiang highlights a fundamental problem with diplomatic strategies. Effective negotiation means communicating a demand for action, backed up with a threat or incentive as well as a means of verifying the action. Too often in European governments’ engagement with China, we communicate one without the other, enacting toothless sanctions or signing meaningless agreements. If the EU or UK start to block certain imports from Xinjiang, for example, they should also propose a mechanism for confirming conditions.

Our first demand for credible change in Xinjiang should be access, argues Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress. China has not given access to Xinjiang to any UN special rapporteurs since 2005. Journalists are routinely tailed and blocked in the region.

The International Labour Organization has avenues for pressing for such access, following China’s signing of its forced labour conventions last year. Pressure on foreign companies that invest in the region is also effective if it can push them to lobby, since Chinese local governments are heavily influenced by their biggest taxpayers.

We should also not underestimate the importance of symbolic action. Uyghurs who live outside China now number over 1mn people. Like the Tibetan and Hong Kong diasporas, many have left their homeland as political refugees. Governments now contemplating how to engage with Xinjiang owe it to these diasporas to show solidarity — regardless of Beijing’s response.

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