US, EU, UK, Canada impose sanctions on China over Xinjiang abuses; Beijing hits back

China denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
China denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday (March 22) for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new US President Joe Biden.

Beijing hit back immediately with punitive measures against the EU that appeared to be broader, including European lawmakers, diplomats, institutes and families, and banning their businesses from trading with China.

Western governments are seeking to hold Beijing accountable for mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in north-western China, where the US says China is committing genocide. China denies all accusations of abuse.

The coordinated effort appeared to be early fruit in a concerted US diplomatic push to confront China in league with allies, a core element of the Biden administration’s still-evolving China policy.

Senior US 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,” US 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.”

In a joint statement, Australia Foreign Minister Marise Payne and New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said they were concerned about credible reports of abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

“In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation,” the ministers said.

They also said they welcomed the sanctions imposed on Chinese officials by other Western nations.

“We share these countries’ deep concerns, which are held across the Australian and New Zealand communities,” Ms Payne and Ms Mahuta said.

First major EU sanctions in decades

The move follows two days of talks between US and Chinese officials last week, which laid bare the tensions between the world’s two largest economies.  

The EU accused Mr Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, 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, secretary of the political and legal affairs committee in Xinjiang; Mr Zhu Hailun, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang; Mr Wang Junzheng, secretary of the party committee of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps; and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.

Unlike the US, the EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing. 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 US.

“A united transatlantic response sends a strong signal to those who violate or abuse international human rights,” Mr 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.  


A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, north of Kashgar, in Xinjiang. PHOTO: AFP

‘Pointless'

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 German scholar Adrian Zenz, 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.  

“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 Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto called them “harmful” and “pointless”.

Activists and UN rights experts say at least one 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 denies rights abuses in Xinjiang and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.  

The EU 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 US had already last year designated for sanctions the top official in Xinjiang, Mr Chen Quanguo, who was not targeted by the other Western allies on Monday, to avoid a larger diplomatic dispute, experts and diplomats said. 

Separately, the foreign ministers of Canada and Britain issued a joint statement with Mr 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.