ROME (AFP) - Italian lawmakers should personally visit China's remote Xinjiang region to check whether the local Muslim Uighur minority is really suffering "genocide", China's ambassador to Rome has suggested.
Mr Li Junhua was speaking at a pre-arranged hearing on Wednesday (March 24) that came amid rising tensions between Western nations and China over Beijing's human rights record - tensions which had earlier seen him summoned to the foreign ministry.
"I invite you to go to Xinjiang personally...see the reality, and understand whether there is really a genocide, if the Uighurs have in the last 20 years really seen a genocide," he told the foreign affairs committee of the Italian Parliament's lower house.
"Whenever you want to go let me know, tell the embassy so that we can organise it," Mr Li added.
Rights groups say that at least one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where authorities are also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
China has strongly denied the allegations, saying that training programmes, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the northwestern region and raise income.
Since 2019, China says it has invited foreign diplomats to visit Xinjiang, but a European Union delegation that year said the people they met there were speaking from a script, while another planned trip this month by EU ambassadors has stalled.
On Monday, the EU, Britain and Canada blacklisted four former and current officials from Xinjiang accused of cracking down on the Uighurs, and the United States took similar action.
China reacted by issuing entry bans for 10 Europeans, prompting Italy, France, Germany and other EU governments to call in their local Chinese ambassadors to complain.
During the meeting with Mr Li, Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister Marina Sereni highlighted the country's solidarity with all those affected by the Chinese sanctions, which she said were unacceptable.
Speaking to Members of Parliament during the hearing, Mr Li argued that China was "forced to react" to hostile action.
"If only the EU can impose sanctions on China and China cannot do the same, do we then have a fair, equal relationship?" he said.
On Wednesday, Beijing accused the EU of hypocrisy after the two sides summoned each other’s envoys.
“The EU only allows itself to arbitrarily smear and attack others, and even arbitrarily imposes sanctions based on false information and lies, but does not allow the Chinese to talk back or fight back,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying at a regular media briefing in Beijing.
“This in itself is double standards, a manifestation of bullying and hypocrisy,” she said.
China had until recently enjoyed relatively cordial relations with the EU, which has been muted over alleged rights abuses as it hunts a trade pact with the world’s second largest economy. The European Union and China in December approved in principle a major investment pact after seven years of painstaking negotiations – but it is still expected to take months to be finalised and fully ratified as a legal text.
Ms Hua said China did “not accept the unreasonable practice of some European countries in summoning Chinese ambassadors".
The tensions come as the EU seeks to formulate a strategy on China at a time when tensions between Beijing and Washington are emerging as the world’s No. 1 geopolitical issue.
Beijing also released a report on Wednesday detailing what it said were human rights abuses committed in the US, citing gun crime, violence towards ethnic minorities and the way that Washington has tackled the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The United States, which has always considered itself an exception and superior, saw its own epidemic situation go out of control, accompanied by political disorder, inter-ethnic conflicts, and social division,” the report said.