Beijing’s Retaliatory Sanctions Over Xinjiang Seen as Self-Defeating

Sanctions on a wide range of opinion leaders raises the profile of an issue China wants to hide, say grateful activists.
2021-03-29
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Beijing’s Retaliatory Sanctions Over Xinjiang Seen as Self-Defeating A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the British Embassy in Beijing, March 26, 2021.
AP Photo

Retaliatory sanctions leveled by China against Western officials and scholars in response to U.S. and European measures over rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have drawn more attention to the issue and sparked accusations Beijing is merely silencing critics, experts said Monday.

On March 22, the European Union, U.S., Canada, and the U.K. sanctioned Chinese officials and security entities as part of a multilateral approach to hold to account those responsible for Beijing’s policies of oppression against Uyghurs in the region.

Among those hit with travel bans and asset freezes were Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng; and the former head of the XUAR, Zhu Hailun. Additionally, the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps’ Public Security Bureau was also targeted.

Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017. The sanctions follow earlier ones by Washington on Chinese officials and entities last year, as well as the U.S. designation in January of China’s policies in the region as genocide—a label that has since been adopted through resolutions in the parliaments of Canada and The Netherlands.

Chinese officials have said camps in the XUAR are centers for “vocational training,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination. 

China’s Foreign Ministry responded last week by announcing its own travel and asset sanctions on 10 individuals “that severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation,” including members of the EU, Dutch, and Belgian parliaments, and several scholars.

The sanctions also targeted the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union, the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark.

The ministry warned that additional moves by the EU would lead China to “resolutely make further reactions,” before placing sanctions on a handful of U.S. and Canadian officials over the weekend. Those hit by Beijing included Gayle Manchin, chair of the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and vice chair of the independent federal government body, Tony Perkins.

Also sanctioned were Michael Chong, vice chair of the Canadian Parliament's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE), and the eight members of the FAAE Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

In announcing the weekend’s sanctions, China’s Foreign Ministry said the measures were meant to protect national sovereignty and warned targeted individuals to “stop political manipulation on Xinjiang-related issues, stop interfering in China's internal affairs in any form and refrain from going farther down the wrong path. Otherwise, they will get their fingers burnt.”

Retaliation seen as badge of honor

The new sanctions drew swift rebukes in key Western capitals.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the measures, adding that “Beijing’s attempt to silence criticism of serious human rights abuse in Xinjiang only contributes to growing international scrutiny.” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau called the sanctions “unacceptable and an attack on transparency and freedom of expression.”

USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer told RFA’s Uyghur Service that his agency expected the sanctions as part of China’s attempts to control the narrative over what is happening in the XUAR.

“Nothing really surprises us about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and what it will do to try to obfuscate and complicate what is now becoming a worldwide condemnation of their religious persecution, human rights violations against the Uyghurs and against many other religious and ethnic minorities in China,” he told RFA in an interview.

“I must say, I'm a little bit envious of my chairman and vice chairman. They were singled out, and I'd like to ask the Chinese Communist government what does Commissioner Bauer have to do to be put on this list? I've been very vocal in speaking out against the Communist Party and the oppression [in the XUAR].”

Bauer likened China’s response to broader Western sanctions over the XUAR to “the sort of thing you would expect on a schoolyard in an argument between two children.”

“They’re not sanctioning anybody in Europe or in the United States and accusing us of human rights violations or of oppressing people in Europe or the United States, they're sanctioning us merely because we have called them out on their repression of the Chinese people,” he said.

“I would think that the CCP would be deeply embarrassed at this point that increasingly they are isolating themselves and they're isolating themselves because, at the same time they want to be a great nation, they're treating their own people with little regard for the basic human rights that all individuals innately have.”

UK academics, think tanks

Meanwhile, criticism of China’s retaliatory sanctions against individuals and entities throughout the West united academics and politicians in crying foul over what they called a bid to curtail freedom of expression and play to the country’s domestic audience.

Three dozen heads of European research institutes that work to promote understanding and exchange between China and Europe issued a statement condemning Beijing for responding to EU sanctions against Chinese officials with ones that target EU politicians as well as China-focused academics and think tanks.

“We are deeply concerned that targeting independent researchers and civil society institutions undermines practical and constructive engagement by people who are striving to contribute positively to policy debates,” the statement said.

“This will be damaging not only for our ability to provide well-informed analysis but also for relations more broadly between China and Europe in the future.”

In a letter to the Times of London, nearly 400 British and U.S. scholars condemned Beijing’s sanctioning of fellow academic Dr. Joanne Smith Finley last week as “a threat to universities’ core principle of academic freedom.”

The move was unprecedented, they said, because while the CCP had long used covert attempts to silence critics outside its territory, “these new overt measures against academics are a serious escalation.”

The academics also said that the sanctions show China fails to understand that British universities are not organs of the state and that, by Beijing insisting that self-censorship is a prerequisite for academic partnership with Chinese universities, U.K scholarly cooperation with China is rendered near impossible.

uyghur-josep-borrell-presser-xinjiang-sanctions-march-2021.jpg
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels after the EU imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, March 22, 2021. AP Photo

Downing Street support

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed his support for those targeted by Beijing, tweeting over the weekend that he had met with those “shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims” and saying he will “stand firmly with them and the other British citizens sanctioned by China.”

Rahima Mahmut, U.K. director of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, welcomed Johnson’s decision to meet with those sanctioned, including U.K. lawmakers who had expressed criticism of the prime minister and his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, for being too soft on China over the XUAR.

“Under such circumstances, the Chinese sanction of these parliament members and the strong support expressed by the Prime Minister is a great victory for us,” she said.

“It would have taken years for us to campaign and bring Prime Minister Johnson on board on the Uyghur issue, but the ill-intentioned retaliation by China has made this possible. This vindictive measure clearly shows China is a bully to everyone.”

However, government support in the U.K. was not enough to bolster all entities targeted by the Chinese government. Over the weekend, the Essex Court Chambers removed a reference on its website to a legal opinion written by four of its lawyers that implicated the Chinese government in genocide in the XUAR after Beijing imposed sanctions on the group last week.

A statement from the chambers claimed that “no other member of Essex Court Chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice and analysis contained in the legal opinion or its publication,” without clarifying why the reference was removed.

EU trade as leverage

And while the EU sanctions last week marked the first by the bloc against China since an arms embargo in 1989 in the aftermath of the July 4 massacre of pro-democracy student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, some have urged Brussels to adopt a sterner approach to its dealings with Beijing because of the situation in the XUAR.

China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S. and the two sides are currently seeking to finalize a major trade deal that was agreed to in principle last year, known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).

Bloomberg columnist Andreas Kluth wrote in an opinion piece Monday that the EU should reconsider the CAI, which must be ratified by several EU lawmakers who were among those targeted by Beijing’s sanctions.

Kluth suggested that the EU should remember what’s at stake: “a conflict between value systems pitting Western notions about rule of law and open societies (however imperfectly those may often be observed in practice) against a Chinese model of overt autocracy.”

“Europe cannot pretend to remain neutral in this contest. A good way to explain this to Beijing is for the EU to hold the investment deal to ransom,” he wrote.

Reported by Alim Seytoff and Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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