The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of responsibility for abuses against Uyghur Muslims in a raft of measures targeting alleged human rights offenders around the world, despite warnings that Beijing could retaliate.
The four are senior officials in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
The sanctions involve a freeze on their assets in the EU and a ban on them traveling in the bloc. European citizens and companies are not permitted to provide them with financial assistance.
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.
EU sanctions 11 people over the military coup and ensuing repression in Myanmar/Burma
— EU Council Press (@EUCouncilPress) March 22, 2021
China at first denied the existence of camps for detaining Uyghurs in the northwest region of Xinjiang but has since described them as centres to provide job training and re-educate those exposed to radical jihadi thinking. Officials deny all charges of human rights abuses in the northwestern region.
Xinjiang had been a hotbed of anti-government violence, but Beijing claims its massive security crackdown brought peace in recent years.
Beijing hit back with punitive measures against EU
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.
Senior U.S. 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,” 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.”
‘Atleast 1 million Muslims detained in camps in Xinjiang’
Activists and U.N. 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 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 U.S. and its allies follows two days of talks here 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, 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.
“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!”
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”.
(With inputs from Reuters)