Washington (Reuters) – The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new U.S President Joe Biden.
Beijing hit back immediately with punitive measures against the EU that appeared to be broader, blacklisting European lawmakers, diplomats and think tanks, including 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.
“Amid growing international condemnation, (China) continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” U.S. 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 U.N. rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims are detained in camps in Xinjiang. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations. China denies rights abuses in Xinjiang and 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 that was mirrored by Britain and Canada later in the day.
The United States had already last year blacklisted 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.
Those targeted by the EU, Canada and Britain included Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The EU said Chen Mingguo was responsible for “serious human rights violations.”
First Major EU Sanctions In Decades
The United States added Chen Mingguo to its blacklist, as well as another senior official, Wang Junzheng, also targeted by the EU, Britain and Canada.
The move follows two days of talks between U.S. 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 and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.
Unlike the United States, the EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing. Monday’s sanctions were the first significant measures since the 1989 Tianamen 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 in policy towards China, which Brussels regarded as a benign trading partner but now views as a systematic abuser of basic rights and freedoms.
Britain has repeatedly denounced torture, forced labour and sterilisations that it says are taking place against Muslim Uighurs 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.
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.
“As long as human rights are being violated, I cannot stay silent. These sanctions prove that China is sensitive to pressure. Let this be an encouragement to all my European colleagues: Speak out!” Dutch lawmaker Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, who was put on China’s sanctions list, said on Twitter.
Restricted from entering China or doing business with it, Beijing accused its targets of seriously harming the country’s sovereignty over Xinjiang.
All 27 EU governments agreed to the bloc’s punitive measures, but Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, called them “harmful” and “pointless”.