Diplomacy

China and the EU in tense stand-off on human rights and sanctions

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, March 22, 2021. The European Union imposed Monday sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of responsibility for abuses against Uyghur Muslims, provoking swift retaliation from Beijing.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, March 22, 2021. The European Union imposed Monday sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of responsibility for abuses against Uyghur Muslims, provoking swift retaliation from Beijing. AP - Aris Oikonomou

The European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada this week imposed fresh sanctions on Chinese officials over the crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Beijing retaliated by hitting Europeans with immediate tit-for-tat measures - after which EU countries summoned Chinese ambassadors en masse.

Advertising

Brussels on Monday announced a package of "restrictive measures against serious human rights abuses" naming people and institutions in China, as part of a larger list that also included North Korea, Libya, Eritrea, South Sudan and Russia. 

Following the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, adopted on 7 December 2020, “the listed individuals and entities are subject to an asset freeze in the EU,”  to a travel ban to the EU, and “persons and entities in the EU are prohibited from making funds available, either directly or indirectly, to those listed”.  

It's the same sort of problem that the UK the US have had in dealing with other authoritarian states, for example, Saudi Arabia: do you put human rights questions ahead of what seems to be in the economic interest of both sides?

PODCAST: Interview with Michael Dillon, history professor affiliated with the Lau China Center, King's College, London, on EU sanctions on China and Chinese counter sanctions.

The UK Foreign Office then repeated the anti-China sanctions and in a joint statement with Canada and the US said that the sanctions were "a clear message" to China about human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in its western Xinjiang region. 

"China’s extensive program of repression includes severe restrictions on religious freedoms, the use of forced labour, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilisations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage," according to the London release.

Brussels, London and Ottawa blacklisted four former and current officials in the Xinjiang region over alleged abuses, which have sparked international outrage.

The coordinated international condemnation also targeted the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

Persons

  • Zhu Hailun, Former Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)
  • Wang Junzheng, Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of XUAR 
  • Wang Mingshan, Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee 
  • Chen Mingguo, Vice Chairman of the Government of the XUAR, and Director of the XUAR Public Security Department

Organisations

  • The Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)

Washington, which had sanctioned two of those Xinjiang officials in July 2020, added the other two to the US list on Monday.

"Acting together sends the clearest possible signal that the international community is united in its condemnation of China's human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the need for Beijing to end its discriminatory and oppressive practices in the region," Britain's foreign ministry said.

China strikes back

This week's sanctions are the first punitive measures imposed by the EU on China since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, after which the EU Council decided on an arms embargo.  "China and the world are used to criticism and sanctions from the US," says Michael Dillon, a China specialist affiliated with the Lau China Institute of King's College in London. 

Although the EU has issued regular reports criticising China's human rights situation, it has refrained from imposing sanctions. Until this week. 

"That touched a raw nerve with China, looking at their responses, which can be described as quite robust," says Dillon. 

Beijing's reaction was swift. Hours after Brussels announced the sanctions, the Chinese foreign ministry summoned Nicolas Chapuis, head of the Delegation of the European Union to China, describing the EU as a "human rights preacher" which "grossly interferes in China's internal affairs" while "sanctions imposed by the EU side were based on lies and misleading information related to Xinjiang," ending with announcing a set of its own "countermeasures".

These include sanctioning five members of the European Parliament - all vocal China critics, including French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann - three local legislators from certain countries, two scholars and think tanks from the EU, and the German Mercator Institute for China Studies which is known for its sharp analyses of China's Communist Party (CCP) as well as the Danish Alliance for Democracy Foundation.

European parliament members
Reinhard Butikofer (Germany, Alliance90/Greens)
Michael Gahler (Germany, EPP/CDU)
Raphaël Glucksmann (France, S&D)
Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Bulgaria, ALD)
Miriam Lexmann (Slovakia, CDM)

Dutch parliament
Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma (D66)

Belgian parliament
Samuel Cogolati (Ecolo)

Lithuanian parliament (Seimas)
Dovile Sakaliene (Social Democratic Party)

Scholars
Adrian Zenz (Germany)
Björn Jerdén (Sweden, director SIIA China knowledge center)

Organisations
Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union
Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament
Mercator Institute for China Studies (Germany)
Alliance of Democracies Foundation (Denmark)
 

"This marks the EU's first ever sanctions against China in 30 years, a move observers say will deal a heavy blow to bilateral relations between the two sides," deplored the CCP-controlled Global Times newspaper,warning that "the EU should learn its lesson on how to deal with China," adding that "Beijing is not afraid of a sanction-wielding Washington, not to mention a much weaker Brussels."

Deteriorating relations

The retaliatory strike was widely criticised across the political spectrum in the EU.

In France, the Foreign Ministry slammed the sanctions and summoned the Chinese ambassador to Paris over "unacceptable comments" he has made in recent days. 

Screengrab from the Global Times, explaining why certain individuals have been singled out for sanctions.
Screengrab from the Global Times, explaining why certain individuals have been singled out for sanctions. © screengrab Global Times

Aggravating China's spat with the EU is a notice by the French Senate announcing the visit of the Senate Taiwan Exchange Study Group to the nationalist island in the summer, "health conditions permitting," provoking Beijing's ire as the authorities there regard the island as an "inseparable part" of China and have expressed hope that the senators would "refrain from any form of social contact with the Taiwanese authorities". 

Germany and Italy also summoned the Chinese ambassadors to their countries, as did Belgium and Denmark. The Dutch government summoned the Chinese ambassador after one of its national lawmakers, Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma, of the liberalD66 party, was among those sanctioned. "China's decision is a totally unjustified response," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

The current row has built up over the past two years when rights groups increasingly produced evidence - also based on CCP sources - indicating that large numbers of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in "re-education" camps in the northwestern region, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.

EU-China investment deal at risk?

China has strongly denied allegations of forced labour involving Uyghurs and says training programs, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the region.

The EU faces a delicate balancing act over relations with China, as it treats Beijing as a rival but also as a potential economic partner.

Brussels on 30 December signed "in principle" the massive EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) after seven years of negotiations. 

Although the deal is yet to be ratified by the European Parliament, Michael Dillon thinks the current diplomatic row will not do much harm to economic relations between Brussels and Beijing. 

"It's the same sort of problem that the UK has had in dealing with other authoritarian states, like Saudi Arabia: do you put human rights questions ahead of what seems to be in the economic interest of both sides?"

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning