China is currently leveraging its economic position to continue its ethnic cleansing against the Uyghur population, while the international community remains hesitant to take measures against these activities for fear of repercussions. Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the treatment of the Uyghur population in China, this issue once again rose to the forefront of international news amidst the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. In response, governments such as the United States, United Kingdom, India, and Canada engaged in a diplomatic boycott of the games through a non-attendance of government officials. Despite accusations of human rights violations, Beijing persistently upheld a narrative of “sustainable” Olympics, pointing notably to its carbon neutrality, demonstrating a clear focus on the environmental pillar of sustainability, over the social and governance poles. This article seeks to assess the role of sustainability in international relations, as well as how political stakes may influence private businesses. This will then be explored through a brief study on cotton and the fashion industry in China. A case is made on how the incorporation of sustainable development ethos within international relations may provide both countries and businesses with greater leverage against China, and facilitate an effective response against human rights violations. 


The Uyghur population is comprised of approximately 12 million individuals who are mostly Muslim, and live in the Xinjang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the western region of China. This region is also responsible for producing around one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply. According to government officials, mass detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslims began in April of 2017,with the belief that over a million Uighhurs have been held in such “re-education camps” over the years since. Evidence from these camps has emerged finding Uyghurs utilized for forced labor, and women being sterilized, tortured, and abused. Since 2021, countries such as the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands have accused China of committing genodice; defined as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, of religious group).” According to the Genocide Convention signed in 1948, member states are obliged to prevent and punish genocide through relevant action or legislation. Thus far, no concrete measures have been taken outside of the official accusation of genocide, and diplomatic boycott of the Olympics on behalf of the states. A response (however performative) to China’s human rights violations is, in fact, aligned with broader geopolitical tensions between the West (specifically the United States) and China. China’s strongest partners, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, however, chose to forego a reserved approach and instead went so far as to “applaud” China’s counter-terrorism efforts in Xinjiang. Thus, the influence of strategic ties with China are therefore key in studying how its human rights abuses are interpreted by other countries, and then leveraged (by either condemning, or “praising” China’s actions) to obtain relative gains in the international system. The broader apprehensiveness to take further action, however, points to the complex and potentially devastating economic and geopolitical costs of challenging the world’s second-largest economy. China on the other hand, has persistently denied any accusataions, rather insisting on the educational and counter-terrorist functions that these camps have in fighting against separatism and Islamist militarism in the region. 

China’s treatment of its Uyghur population once again faced the spotlight of news cycles during the 2022 winter Olympics, based on denouncement of its hypocrisy regarding a commitment to sustainable games. Granted, a rather successful outcome emerged out of these games; the world’s first carbon-neutral Olympics. However, underneath the conveniently mediatized environmental outcomes, China’s efforts towards the social pillar of sustainability clearly fell short, based on allegations that Uyghur labor was used to create official merchandise. The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region and Human Rights Watch notably argued that the International Olympic Committee did not sufficiently investigate potential links between uniforms and other Beijing products with potential human rights violations in the Uyghur region. Furthermore, they criticized the IOC’s audit on China’s sourcing and suppliers claiming that there was insufficient transparency to attribute responsibility standards to such parties. It therefore appears that both the IOC and China engaged in a form of greenwashing by adhering to convenient sustainability objectives for publicity and conformity with present-day international standards, without true commitment to durable development. This is notably seen in China’s symbolically hypocritical move of having a Uyghur man as torchbearer. We can interpret China’s sudden environmentalism as a clear attempt to remedy its lack of social initiatives and its human rights violations. Within the conversation of sustainability, China’s treatment of Uyghurs violates the following sustainable development goals: SDG 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere, SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries. In contrast to its “environmental success” during the games, China nevertheless violates five out of the seventeen goals set out by the United Nations. It also currently stands among the top two countries in annual greenhouse gas emissions, which leads one to relativize the genuinity behind committing a sporting event to carbon neutrality. 


Another lens through which to analyze the Uyghur crisis and its international implications is that of the fashion industry and its reliance on China, both in terms of raw materials and sales. An interesting precedent was notably set in the French city of Bordeaux, which rejected a request by Zara to expand its store due to concerns over labor rights violations. Zara, owned by the Spanish group Inditex, was the subject of investigations exploring whether forced Uyghur labor had been used in its supply chains. Such a decision made at the municipal level, and the media coverage it received, offers an optimistic lens through which citizens and local governments have a real window for influencing international stakes of human rights. In this case, we notice the clear benefits of upholding the values of sustainable development within an ecosystem, whether that be a private company or a larger public institution such as a city or even a country. By reinforcing its commitments to sustainable development, Bordeaux minimized the presence of a company whose values were not aligned with its goals which is beneficial for its long term development, and subsequently garnered a great deal of media coverage and applause for its ideological standing. In contrast, the Xinjiang province and Zara were once again placed under the spotlight for unethical treatment of Uyghurs and compliance to such processes. As displayed on its website Zara has a clear sustainability roadmap which is focused on environmental projects. This is notably seen through its goals of reducing water waste and its “Join Life” label, which guarantees the sustainable sourcing of raw materials. Zara also claims to be committed to “sustainable production spaces that guarantee compliance with employee human and labor rights, in line with the goals of the United Nations and in compliance with international standards”. However, in June 2021, French prosecutors opened an investigation on the involvement of the fashion giant in “crimes against humanity” taking place in the Xinjiang region. This current prioritization of profits over fair labor standards by Zara, and disregard for human rights by China, ultimately risks creating issues linked with international credibility and legitimacy. 


As sustainability comes to occupy a larger space in international relations, it is possible that commitments to SDGs and other standards will come to serve as powerful currency for international credibility for both public and private actors. For example, let us explore the potential activist role of the consumer in affecting human rights-related outcomes. Members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) such as H&M, Nike, and Adidas were notably the targets of wide-spread consumer boycotts in China in response to comments made about commitment to remain distant from cotton sourcing in Xinjiang. This underscores several key takeaways. First, there is a clear challenge for companies which must balance between long-term development goals in the Chinese market and their relationship with Beijing, and the ethical and sustainable commitments expected of them by their domestic markets. Second, although the role of individual consumers and municipalities in upholding human rights was deemed successful in Bordeaux, the West would largely lose any such “boycott war”. In the case of H&M, although it sells approximately 95% of its clothing outside of China, this market is key to its growth in the next five to ten years which it cannot afford to offend. 


Within this scenario of sustainability-linked credibility, repercussions could also fall on states that both violate SDGs or condone such behavior. Short-term economic growth would perhaps no longer suffice in the international system, as long-term growth would be secured through commitments to sustainable development. Sustainable development could also come to serve as a new dimension to incorporate into the strategic analysis of capabilities and values of other countries. Thus, there may be a potential longer-term effect of China’s disregard for the social pillar of sustainability on international relations and its allies which have supported it. However, China’s potential for retaliation must also be kept in mind by rational states and companies seeking to profit from this market. Despite a potential decline of China’s international influence and credibility through its treatment of Uyghurs, it may therefore also be protected from significant political costs by its current economic strength, and even stronger growth prospects. This challenge in navigating social obligations to economic prospects is only bound to grow more difficult as supply chains continue to integrate globally. To this end, the pandemic and supply chain shocks which have crippled certain industries may naturally drive a reconsideration of economic integration in favor of a localized and controlled supply chain. This brings two noteworthy implications for states. First, greater independence from the geopolitical ambitions of manufacturing countries whose view of the world order may be incompatible with their own. Through the emergence of such manufacturing “hubs”, states would also gain more bargaining power against multinational corporations’ foreign direct investments (FDI), as capital would become less mobile. This could lead to an increase in price which would be conducive to improved labor standards in FDI host countries. Along with a greater control over manufacturing, states would therefore also acquire greater agency in holding China accountable for its domestic actions. Thus, economic and political spheres of international relations may benefit from the adoption of a more sustainable supply chain framework which favors local materials and modes of production.