Britain and the EU have taken joint action with the US and Canada to impose parallel sanctions on a senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province in the first such western action against Beijing since Joe Biden took office.
The move also marked the first time for three decades the UK or the EU had punished Chinafor human rights abuses, and both will now be working hard to contain the potential political and economic fallout. China hit back immediately, blacklisting MEPs, European diplomats and thinktanks.
The US and Canada also imposed sanctions on several senior Chinese officials as part of the coordinated pressure campaign.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab said that China’s treatment of the Uighur minority was “the largest mass detention of an ethnic and religious group since the second world war”.
Evidence of repression in Xinjiang “is clear as it is sobering”, Raab said.
The sanctions will be imposed immediately and include travel bans and asset freezes against four officials, Raab told MPs.
“Amid growing international condemnation, [China] continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” said the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
“We will continue to stand with our allies around the world in calling for an immediate end to the PRC’s crimes and for justice for the many victims.”
The Chinese ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, had given advance warning there would be countermeasures, including against those organisations spreading “lies” about the situation in Xinjiang. China also said it was sanctioning 10 EU individuals and four entities. The German Green politician Reinhard Bütikofer, an active voice in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group that attempts to reform the approach of democratic countries to China, was among five MEPs sanctioned. Two academics were also sanctioned.
In a statement China said: “The Chinese side urges the EU side to reflect on itself, face squarely the severity of its mistake and redress it. It must stop lecturing others on human rights and interfering in their internal affairs. It must end the hypocritical practice of double standards.”
Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the chair of the conference on the future of Europe said: “China just killed the EU-China Investment Agreement by sanctioning the people criticising slave labour [and] genocide in Xinjiang. How could we ever trust them to improve the human rights situation of the Uighurs if they simply call it “fake news”.
Activists and UN experts say at least 1 million Muslims are detained in camps in Xinjiang. China denies rights abuses and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
The four Chinese officials sanctioned by the EU and the UK are: Zhu Hailun, the former secretary of the political affairs committee of Xinjiang and seen as the architect of the Uighur internment program; Wang Junzheng, the head of Xinjiang production and construction corps; Chen Mingguo, director of Xinjiang public security bureau; and Wang Mingshan a secretary to the Xinjiang autonomous region political committee.
The EU accused Chen 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”.
There was some criticism of the sanctions within the EU with the Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, describing the step as pointless. Hungary has been eager to source vaccines from either Russia or China and has been aggressively wooed by the Chinese foreign service.
The EU is due shortly to sign a major investment deal with China that is intended to level the playing field, open up Chinese markets and provide some protection against forced labour.
Although the investment deal has yet to be ratified by the European parliament, Germany in particular will be concerned that the sanctions do not destabilise economic relations with China.
Britain’s opposition Labour party said Raab’s timing, hours after the EU acted and following months of Foreign Office resistance, showed the UK sheltering behind the EU. The UK has an independent sanctions regime to the EU, but it waited for the EU to act before taking any measures against itself to avoid being singled out for punishment by China.Advertisementnull
Neither the UK or EU has imposed sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the suppression of democratic elections in Hong Kong. The UK last week declared that China iwas in breach of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong as a result of the suppression of full elections, but has so far not taken any measures against the Chinese for their treatment of the former UK colony. The US has imposed sanctions on 24 officials connected with the new sovereignty laws.
The timing of the UK move also came ahead of a potentially difficult Commons vote in which Tory backbenchers in alliance with opposition parties were seeking for a third time to defeat the government and impose some form of UK judicial oversight into determining whether genocide was being committed against the Uighurs.
The measure is contained in the trade bill.
The UK shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, described the announcement of UK sanctions against China as “a grubby, cynical, last-ditch attempt to buy votes ahead of a backbench rebellion later today. The foreign secretary has repeatedly refused to sanction Chinese officials for more than two years and only now, after the US and EU have done so and he is facing defeat in the Commons, is he reluctantly forced to take action”.
“If anything sums up just how utterly inconsistent the government’s approach to China is, today the foreign secretary will apply sanctions to officials responsible for human rights abuses and in the same breath insist on the right to sign trade deals with countries that commit genocide.”