Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 22 March 2021


EU and UK impose sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang

It is the first time for three decades either institution has punished China for human rights abuses

Chinese and EU flags in Brussels
Chinese and EU flags in Brussels. It is the first time for three decades that the EU or the UK has taken action against China for human rights abuses. Photograph: John Thys/AP

Last modified on Mon 22 Mar 2021 14.53 GMT

The EU and the UK have both crossed a political rubicon by imposing parallel sanctions on a small group of senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

The steps were announced by the EU foreign affairs council and the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab. It is the first time for three decades either institution has punished China for human rights abuses, and both will now be working hard to contain the potential political and economic fallout.

China immediately responded by saying it was sanctioning 10 EU individuals and four entities. The German Green politician Reinhard Bütikofer, an active voice in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group that attempts to reform the approach of democratic countries to China, was among five MEPs sanctioned. Two academics were also sanctioned.

The Chinese ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, had given advance warning there would be counter-measures, including against those organisations spreading “lies” about the situation in Xinjiang.

In a statement China said “the Chinese side urges the EU side to reflect on itself, face squarely the severity of its mistake and redress it. It must stop lecturing others on human rights and interfering in their internal affairs. It must end the hypocritical practice of double standards”.

The four Chinese officials sanctioned by the EU have been previously subject to US sanctions. They are: Zhu Hailun, the former secretary of the political affairs committee of Xinjiang and seen as the architect of the Uighur internment program; Wang Junzheng, the head of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps; Chen Mingguo, director of Xinjiang public security bureau; and Wang Mingshan a secretary to the Xinjiang autonomous region political committee.

The EU accused Chen 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”

There was some criticism of the sanctions within the EU with the Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, describing the step as pointless. Hungary has been eager to source vaccines from either Russia or China and has been aggressively wooed by the Chinese foreign service.

The EU is due shortly to sign a major investment deal with China that is intended to level the playing field, open up Chinese markets and provide some protection against forced labour.

Although the investment deal has yet to be ratified by the European parliament, Germany in particular will be concerned that the sanctions do not destabilise economic relations with China.

Britain’s opposition Labour party said Raab’s timing, hours after the EU acted and following months of foreign office resistance, showed the UK sheltering behind the EU. The UK has an independent sanctions regime to the EU, but it waited for the EU to act before taking any measures against itself to avoid being singled out for punishment by China.

Neither the UK or EU has imposed sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the suppression of democratic elections in Hong Kong. The UK last week declared that China iwas in breach of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong as a result of the suppression of full elections, but has so far not taken any measures against the Chinese for their treatment of the former UK colony. The US has imposed sanctions on 24 officials connected with the new sovereignty laws.

The timing of the UK move also came ahead of a potentially difficult Commons vote in which Tory backbenchers in alliance with opposition parties were seeking for a third time to defeat the government and impose some form of UK judicial oversight into determining whether genoicde was being committed against the Uighurs.

The measure is contained in the trade bill.

Ministers are opposed to any UK high court input, but have compromised by suggesting a select committee of the House of Commons could examine the issue and provide advice, but only if a trade deal is about to be signed.

The UK shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, described the announcement of UK sanctions against China as “a grubby, cynical, last-ditch attempt to buy votes ahead of a backbench rebellion later today. The foreign secretary has repeatedly refused to sanction Chinese officials for more than two years and only now, after the US and EU have done so and he is facing defeat in the Commons, is he reluctantly forced to take action”.

“If anything sums up just how utterly inconsistent the government’s approach to China is, today the foreign secretary will apply sanctions to officials responsible for human rights abuses and in the same breath insist on the right to sign trade deals with countries that commit genocide.”

“Despite claiming the actions of Chinese officials are ‘barbaric’, the foreign secretary has spent recent weeks privately talking up the prospect of a trade deal with China.”

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