EU sanctions on China over Uyghur treatment trigger instant retaliation

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The EU has imposed its first sanctions on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — a move that triggered immediate retaliation from Beijing against European officials, parliamentarians and think-tanks.

The European bloc on Monday placed travel bans and asset freezes on four officials and a security organisation over persecution, including mass internments, of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The US and the UK are expected to follow Brussels in announcing sanctions related to the treatment of the minority, ahead of the arrival of US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Brussels this week.

China’s foreign ministry retaliated with travel bans on 10 EU individuals and four entities, including MEPs that have criticised Chinese policy. People targeted included French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, German scholar Adrian Zenz and Swedish analyst Björn Jerdén. The ministry said companies and institutions associated with them would be “restricted from doing business with China”.

The move and China’s response highlight the European bloc’s uncomfortable efforts to maintain political and economic ties with Beijing while confronting it in other areas, such as its human rights record. The US is also enlisting allies to join it in attempting to counter China’s influence.

The EU sanctions named high-level officials and entities in Xinjiang with direct connections to the internment camp system. These include the public security bureau and the Communist party boss of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation that plays a central role in the region’s economy and security.

The measures also named Zhu Hailun, head of Xinjiang’s powerful Legal and Political Affairs commission from 2016 to 2019. He signed off on internal party documents, later leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that described how the “vocational and educational training centres” were designed like prisons.

The list did not include Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist party boss, the highest ranking official in the region. Chen was targeted by US sanctions last July.

Beijing criticised the EU measures as “based on nothing but lies and disinformation” and said they “severely” undermined its ties with the European bloc.

The Chinese measures also targeted the European bloc’s political and security committee, the grouping of member state ambassadors in Brussels responsible for foreign, security and defence policy. The Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany and Denmark’s Alliance of Democracies Foundation were also on the list.

David Sassoli, European parliament president, said the counter-sanctions were “unacceptable” and would have “consequences”.

The US was expected to issue more Xinjiang-related sanctions on Monday, as part of a co-ordinated action with its allies. The move comes less than a week after the Biden administration imposed measures on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over a Chinese law that further erodes democracy in the former British territory.

The new Xinjiang sanctions come on the heels of the first high-level meeting between the US and China since Joe Biden became president. 

Blinken and Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, met their Chinese counterparts in Alaska last week in a meeting that erupted into an extraordinary public spat.

Blinken warned the Chinese officials that the US would raise “deep concerns” about issues including Xinjiang when they held their private talks. He had previously called the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang “genocide”. 

Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, lashed back in a 16-minute speech that lambasted America for its foreign policy and accused it of having a poor human rights record because of its domestic racial tensions.

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