China sanctions: will employers be caught between Beijing and the West?
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John van der Luit-Drummond is editor-in-chief of International Employment Lawyer

China’s unprecedented sanctions against a leading English barristers’ chambers for “maliciously” spreading “lies and disinformation” shows international businesses are increasingly stuck in the middle of a high-stakes tug of war between Western governments and Beijing over the human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Announced today, China issued economic sanctions against nine named individuals and four organisations, including British parliamentarians and lawyers at London-based Essex Court Chambers. Those named, along with their immediate family, are now prohibited from entering the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, or Macau. More importantly, Chinese companies are now prohibited from doing business with those listed for sanctions.

The targeting of the barristers’ chambers, which also has an outpost in Singapore, followed the publication in February of a legal opinion from Alison McDonald QC, Jackie MacArthur, Naomi Hart, and Lorraine Aboagye – commissioned by the Global Legal Action Network – which concluded that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighurs “amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.

Although numerous reports have documented China’s abuses of the Muslim minority group, including rape, forced sterilisation, torture, and forced labour, Beijing has repeatedly claimed that internment camps in Xinjiang are “re-education centres” designed to reform terrorists. Nevertheless, political condemnation of China’s targeting of the Uighur population continues to grow around the world.

In the United States, the final days of the Trump administration saw the introduction of an import ban on cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang. More recently, the US House of Representatives has reintroduced a bipartisan bill that would ban imports unless proof is provided that goods are free from forced labour.

The Biden administration is also reportedly backing an Australian bill banning imports from Xinjiang, while, in Europe, the European Commission has been tasked with reviewing whether Chinese companies exporting goods to the EU are involved in human rights abuses. And, last week, a group of cross-party MPs called on the UK government to blacklist firms “complicit in the forced labour of Uighurs”.

China’s sanction of Essex Court is significant as it suggests Beijing is prepared to take measures against a whole organisation for the actions of a few associated with it

If a multinational company’s analysis of political, economic, social, and technological (PEST) issues wasn’t already complicated enough, with China it now faces a big dilemma: being “wilfully blind” to the Uighurs’ plight risks domestic and international political censure, as well as consumer and employee backlash; speaking out against Beijing risks Chinese boycotts and economic sanctions that would damage a firm’s standing in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and, of course, its profit margins.

China’s sanction of Essex Court is significant as – despite the chambers model being a collection of independent, self-employed lawyers – it suggests Beijing is prepared to take measures against a whole organisation for the actions of a few associated with it, including, it could be concluded, employees.

As IEL recently highlighted, employers should be increasingly wary of disciplining staff for voicing political or social beliefs. Already a legal and public relations minefield, it would seem incredibly unwise, amid heightened political and consumer awareness, for an employer to terminate workers who publicly highlight horrific human rights abuses.

So, will the latest development lead to companies standing in support of employee and consumer opinion? Will they make public declarations about “not interfering in China's internal affairs”? Or will they hedge their bets and stay quiet on the issue? Any organisation that attempts the latter path – treading the tightrope between the powers of East and West, as well as consumers and workers – might need to come up with ways of appeasing China’s leadership.

In the case of Essex Court, and despite support from the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Bar Human Rights Committee, and other chambers, a webpage that once publicised the offending legal opinion by McDonald QC, MacArthur, Hart, and Aboagye has disappeared from the set’s website. Although Essex Court didn’t respond to a question from IEL asking for clarification on the article’s removal, it did say in a statement: “In writing that opinion, each of these four individuals was providing independent legal advice in accordance with their professional obligations”.

With several of the set’s members known for acting in China-related disputes, it is understandable if the chambers is looking to mitigate the impact of the report’s publication. However, as an organisation that has both commercial and public international law expertise the fallout, both internally and externally, may not yet be fully realised. What Essex Court does next, and China’s response, could be a litmus test for other businesses.