After Brussels moved to impose sanctions on China in March, Beijing retaliated by targeting four Lithuanian politicians among more than a dozen European diplomats and officials. Now, despite direct pressure on Lithuanian MPs, Vilnius is planning to recognise as genocide China’s repression against Uighurs. EURACTIV’s media partner LRT.lt reports.
Lithuanian MP Dovilė Šakalienė was added to the Chinese sanctions list as one of the founders and leaders of the Interparliamentary Alliance on China, which brings together 100 MPs from 19 countries.
Together with other Lithuanian MPs, she has received “very strict, categorical and pressuring letters from the Chinese Embassy”.
According to Jakub Janda from the European Values Center for Security Policy in the Czech Republic, “China tracks closely who is exposing Chinese hostile behaviour in particular countries, Chinese Embassies in particular countries attack these individuals, so this Is just a collective Chinese action altogether”.
The letter came only after Šakalienė proposed to draft a resolution in the Lithuanian parliament on the persecution of Uighurs and other minorities in China.
The US, Canada, and the Netherlands have described Beijing’s actions against its citizens in Xinjiang province as genocide.
“The fact that Lithuania is joining countries that condemn serious human rights violations that are likely to match parts of the [United Nations] Genocide Convention has clearly affected China,” Šakalienė told LRT.lt.
In early March, a team of independent UN experts declared that the Chinese government in Xinjiang was in violation of all 50 sections of the Genocide Convention and that it was “seeking to completely destroy” the country’s Muslim group, adding that “this global power is the architect of this genocide”.
According to Šakalienė, Beijing’s actions amount to genocide defined in the UN Convention and Lithuania is now coordinating and preparing its response.
“We see many systematic [violations], we probably have yet to learn about the cruelty and scale of these crimes,” she said. “The resolution would set out certain guidelines for communication with China: what is unacceptable to us and what principles we will stand for. Certain red lines.”
The interparliamentary alliance is also calling for a comprehensive, independent international inquiry into China.
China dismisses genocide claim as ‘outright lie’
China’s embassy to the EU told EURACTIV in emailed comments that “the allegation of China committing genocide of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is an outright lie”. It made no specific reference to Lithuania.
The embassy said that some “anti-China extremist forces” have in recent years “fabricated too many lies related to Xinjiang, including the so-called ‘concentration camps” ‘genocide’ and ‘forced labour'”.
Beijing insists that “Xinjiang is a great example” of progress on human rights, and has invited foreign diplomats to visit the region. However, when EU ambassadors asked to meet with the imprisoned Uighur activist and Sakharov Prize winner Ilham Tohti, the planned visit was frozen.
“They are demanding a meeting with a criminal convicted under Chinese law,” the Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, commented at the time. “I am very sorry, but this is unacceptable.”
According to Šakalienė, special hearings will be held in the Lithuanian parliament on April 22, where international experts and relatives of imprisoned people will talk about the repressions in Xinjiang.
“The parliaments of several countries will work together to make it very clear: we will not be intimidated. These are the fundamental values of the EU and we will defend them unanimously,” said Šakalienė.
Back in 2019, Lithuania was among the dozen EU members to sign a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning Beijing’s actions.
However, Janda is sceptical about the possibility to recognise the Uighur genocide even at the EU level.
“Major countries like Germany, France, and Italy are afraid of Chinese economic punishment so they are trying to be soft and not to upset China,” he said.
Previously, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has compared the EU’s sanctions with Europe’s imperialist policies in the 20th century.
“Today’s China is no longer what it was 120 years ago. The Chinese people are not to be trifled with,” she said, urging the EU to rather focus on its own internal problems.
Beijing has condemned the European sanctions, with the Chinese ambassador to France going as far as calling a prominent French China analyst a “small-time hoodlum” and a “mad hyena”.
The EU reacted furiously, with its top diplomat, Josep Borrell, calling Beijing’s retaliatory sanctions pathetic, while European Parliament President David Sassoli said Europe was not “a punching bag” and promised a response.
Chinese ambassadors were then summoned in Lithuania, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and other countries over “unnecessary escalation”.
Future of trade with China
When Donald Trump launched a trade war to pressure Beijing, the United States sought EU support. However, EU countries decided to seek “strategic autonomy” and their own place in the competition between the two world powers.
Meanwhile, analysts and politicians have warned of China’s various cooperation initiatives and investment promises that aim to divide the EU.
This is one of the main reasons why scepticism in Lithuania is growing towards China’s 17+1 format, where Beijing is engaging with Central and Eastern European nations.
Vilnius has recently said it would leave the initiative but the foreign ministry later told 15min.lt news website that the country would simply stop attending the meetings, without formal notice, because 17+1 is not an official organisation.
Estonian MEP and former commander of the country’s military, Riho Terras, has also called on Tallinn to follow Lithuania in shunning Beijing’s overtures. Lithuania is also planning to open economic representation in Taiwan, which has further irked Beijing.
In December, lobbied by France and Germany, the EU and China signed a major investment agreement, which was criticised by several member states, including Lithuania.
The agreement is primarily beneficial for the EU’s business giants, according to experts. For China, however, it was an important symbolic victory.
But now, the agreement’s future is unclear because of the ongoing tit-for-tat sanctions between the EU and China and because Brussels can no longer ignore violations of the values it claims to champion.
The European Parliament still needs to ratify the agreement and three of the parliament’s biggest parties have said they cannot do so until Beijing lifts sanctions on five MEPs.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the EU’s Borrell also agreed to relaunch the EU-US forum to discuss a common approach to China.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]