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  • Western Sanctions on Xinjiang:An Impact Assessment
  • Alexander Kriebitz (bio)

Following reports on escalating human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the West has responded with economic sanctions on organizations and individuals involved in atrocity crimes including an American embargo of goods manufactured by forced labor of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. In order to substantiate the debate on the utility of sanctioning the XUAR, the following article sheds light onto the political, economic, and human rights implications of the imposed measures. The preliminary observations discussed in the article point at the practical limitations of sanctioning entities at a subnational level, reveal how economic and political costs reduce the size of the sanctioning coalition, and suggest that the current sanctions framework enhances the relative power of state-affiliated agents within Xinjiang's political economy vis-à-vis private sector entities.


The normative and empirical perspectives of economic statecraft have been studied from the perspectives of several disciplines, including international law, political science, and economics. These discourses address economic statecraft as primarily a legitimate instrument of foreign policy and elaborate on the effective strategy for navigating commercial ties with authoritarian regimes. Following its "reform and open door policy" (改革开放) in the late 1970s and 1980s, China has widely been regarded as setting the primary example of the change-through-trade argument: that an increase in commercial relations and gradual market liberalization can spark improvements in social development and human rights.1 However, in tandem with a longer trend of steadily worsening relations between China and the West, allegations that the Chinese government is committing genocide in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have challenged this narrative. Simultaneously, the international community's response to the situation in XUAR has reignited the debate on the utility of economic sanctions as a means to enforce policy changes.2

The following article integrates the parallel academic discourses on economic statecraft and the situation in the XUAR to provide a more nuanced perspective on the manifold political and economic repercussions of the use of economic statecraft in Xinjiang. This paper concentrates on the international sanctions which have targeted the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and the solar industry in XUAR as they are indicative of the effects of sanctions on other business sectors in the region owing to the dominance of the XPCC in the cotton and the agricultural sectors of the XUAR.3 The examination of the Xinjiang case yields an important finding, namely that traditional concepts of economic statecraft including smart and comprehensive sanctions are limited when employed against an economic superpower and on entities at the subnational level. [End Page 238]

Economic statecraft: its prospects and discontents

Economic statecraft is the use of economic power in international affairs. These measures include smart sanctions, comprehensive embargoes, and trade agreements that aim to enforce concessions or spark political changes in authoritarian regimes.4 The rationale behind economic statecraft is derived from the economic and geopolitical considerations of both value-based and national interest-centered foreign policy approaches.5 The traditional view in international law suggests that the UN Security Council is the only institution with the legitimacy to enact punitive measures against states.6 However, in the past and present Western states have employed economic sanctions in response to perceived violations of international law.7 Thus, Western policymakers often comprehend economic sanctions as an instrument to deter acts of aggression or gross human rights violations.8 The distinction between smart and comprehensive sanctions hints at competing aims behind the concept of economic statecraft. Smart sanctions single out individuals and organizations complicit in norm violations as a form of punishment, whereas comprehensive sanctions derive their strategic power and legitimacy by imposing economic costs on and enforcing improvement of human rights in the targeted country. Economic and political costs created by sanctions are believed to change the calculus of political leaders and to increase the likelihood for concessions and subsequent improvements of human rights. The legitimacy of sanctions rests on the assumptions that sanctions require support from a closely aligned sanctioning coalition; that this coalition imposes significant costs on the entities complicit in or profiting from perceived violations of international law; and finally, that...