The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday (22 March) for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new US President Joe Biden.
Beijing hit back immediately with punitive measures against the EU that appeared broader, including European lawmakers, diplomats, institutes and families, and banning their businesses from trading with China.
Western governments are seeking to hold Beijing accountable for mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, where the United States says China is committing genocide.
China denies all accusations of abuse and rejects interference in its internal affairs.
The coordinated effort appeared to be early fruit in a concerted US diplomatic push to confront China in league with allies, a core element of Biden’s still evolving China policy.
The ‘Europe roadshow’
Senior US administration officials have said they are in daily contact with governments in Europe on China-related issues, something they call the “Europe roadshow.”
“Amid growing international condemnation, (China) continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in statement ahead of meetings with EU and NATO ministers in Brussels this week.
Canada’s foreign ministry said: “Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities.”
Activists and UN rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations. China says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
The European Union was the first to impose sanctions on Monday on four Chinese officials, including a top security director, and one entity, a decision later mirrored by Britain and Canada.
Those also targeted by the United States were Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and another senior official in the region, Wang Junzheng.
The United States had already last year designated for sanctions the top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who was not targeted by the other Western allies on Monday, to avoid a larger diplomatic dispute, experts and diplomats said.
The foreign ministers of Canada and Britain issued a joint statement with Blinken, saying the three were united in demanding that Beijing end its “repressive practices” in Xinjiang.
Evidence of abuses was “overwhelming”, including satellite imagery, eyewitness testimony, and the Chinese government’s own documents, they said.
Separately, the foreign ministers of Australia and New Zealand issued a statement expressing “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang” and welcoming the measures announced by Canada, the European Union, Britain and the United States.
First major EU sanctions in decades
The move by the US and its allies follows two days of talks between US and Chinese officials last week, which laid bare the tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
The EU accused Chen Mingguo of “arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief”.
Others hit with travel bans and asset freezes were: senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.
The EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing and Monday’s sanctions were the first significant measures since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, although Brussels targeted two computer hackers and a technology firm in 2020 as part of broader cyber sanctions.
The steps were praised by the United States. “A united transatlantic response sends a strong signal to those who violate or abuse international human rights,” Blinken said.
While mainly symbolic, the EU sanctions mark a hardening towards China, which Brussels regarded as a benign trading partner but now views as a systematic abuser of rights and freedoms.
Britain has repeatedly denounced torture, forced labour and sterilisations that it says are taking place on an “industrial scale” in Xinjiang and repeated its criticism of Beijing on Monday.
Beijing’s reprisal was swift.
Retaliation included sanctions on European lawmakers, the EU’s main foreign policy decision-making body known as the Political and Security Committee and two institutes.
German politician Reinhard Butikofer, who chairs the European Parliament’s delegation to China, was among the most high-profile figures to be hit. The non-profit Alliance of Democracies Foundation, founded by former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was on the list, according to a statement by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Also included was Adrian Zenz, a German scholar whose research was cited by the State Department last year when highlighting alleged abuses in Xinjiang.
The Netherlands summoned China’s ambassador to The Hague after Beijing announced its measures on 10 Europeans, while the European Parliament, along with German, Dutch, Belgian and other foreign ministers, rejected the Chinese retaliation.
The French foreign ministry said it would also summon the ambassador to protest the decision by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to sanction several European nationals, including French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann.
France’s foreign ministry has summoned China’s ambassador over repeated insults and threats aimed at French lawmakers and a researcher and a decision by Beijing to sanction officials across the European Union.
“The words of the Chinese Embassy in France and the actions against European elected officials, researchers and diplomats are inadmissible,’ Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wrote on Twitter on Monday. “I requested that the Chinese ambassador be summoned to remind him firmly of these messages.”
“These sanctions prove that China is sensitive to pressure,” Dutch lawmaker Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, who was put on China’s sanctions list, said on Twitter. “Let this be an encouragement to all my European colleagues: Speak out!”
All 27 EU governments agreed to the bloc’s punitive measures, but Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó called them “harmful” and “pointless”.