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International relations

Transatlantic allies unite in sanctions on China over Xinjiang

Japan stands as only G-7 member left out of response to Uyghur abuses

Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against China in Istanbul.   © Reuters

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON -- The U.S., the U.K. and Canada joined the European Union on Monday in announcing sanctions on Chinese officials accused of involvement in human rights abuses, leaving Japan as the only Group of Seven member not to follow suit.

The EU asset freezes and travel bans, imposed in response to alleged repression of China's Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, were part of a coordinated action stretching from Europe to North America to the Asia-Pacific region.

The new EU sanctions take immediate effect and come ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first visit to Europe in office, showing a willingness to coordinate with President Joe Biden's administration on China.

In joint statement, the foreign ministers of the U.S., the U.K. and Canada "are united in our deep and ongoing concern regarding China’s human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang," the three countries' foreign ministers said in a statement.

The EU added to its blacklist four Chinese Communist Party members and a party organization in Xinjiang accused of involvement in "large-scale arbitrary detentions" and other abuses. The U.K. sanctioned four Chinese officials and the U.S. two.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will meet with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week.   © Reuters

China hit back, saying it "firmly opposes and strongly condemns" the EU sanctions, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

Beijing announced sanctions on 10 people and four organizations on the EU side "that severely harm China's sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation," according to the spokesperson's statement. They include members of the European Parliament and EU member legislatures.

The EU "must stop lecturing others on human rights and interfering in their internal affairs," the spokesperson said, warning that China is ready to make "further reactions."

The European sanctions over Xinjiang are the bloc's first against China since an arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Though they are largely symbolic, they reflect a growing rift between the EU and China after years of building closer economic ties.

The EU measures fall under the bloc's new global human rights sanctions regime adopted in December, which facilitates targeting of individuals and entities involved in abuses. The announcement also covered targets in North Korea, Libya, Russia, South Sudan and Eritrea. The bloc on the same day imposed sanctions on 11 people involved in the coup in Myanmar, mostly top members of the country's military.

The new sanctions framework, by focusing on specific actors tied to human rights violations rather than countries, provides cover to EU nations that may be reluctant to stand up to China more directly.

The move comes amid skepticism, both within and outside the bloc, of the investment agreement signed by Brussels and Beijing late last year.

Shortly before the deal was signed, Jake Sullivan, now Biden's national security adviser, warned Brussels against an overly hasty compromise. On Xinjiang, the Biden administration has indicated it stands by the U.S. designation under former President Donald Trump of China's treatment of the Uyghurs as "genocide."

Blinken is expected to urge Brussels to take a tougher China policy when he meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during his visit to Europe this week.

Concerns about China will be on the agenda at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Tuesday and Wednesday, Philip Reeker, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters ahead of Blinken's visit. The trip follows a contentious meeting between Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Alaska last week in which the two clashed publicly over issues including human rights.

The U.S. last week sanctioned 24 officials in mainland China and Hong Kong for planning an electoral system overhaul that Washington calls an "assault on democracy."

After news of the planned EU sanctions emerged last week, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international group of legislators that includes members of the European Parliament, urged further action.

"EU sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for Uyghur abuses must be followed by sanctions on those who have dismantled Hong Kong's democracy," the group tweeted Saturday.

The EU-China investment deal needs to be ratified by the European Parliament. That body has taken aim at Beijing recently, passing a resolution in December condemning forced labor in Xinjiang and another in January calling for the immediate release of pro-democracy activists and members of the opposition detained in Hong Kong.

Critics say the deal risks running counter to Europe's status as a frontrunner on human rights, going back to 1950 with the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Human rights protesters hold up placards as they wait for China's President Xi Jinping in London in 2015.   © Reuters

Separately, the U.K. on Monday announced sanctions against four senior Chinese officials and the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps over their alleged role in human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

They are the first British actions against Chinese officials under the U.K.'s global human rights sanctions regime for abuses against Uyghurs, according to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the sanctions in Parliament, calling the situation in Xinjiang "one of the worst human rights crises of our time."

Raab said the sanctions are in coordination with the EU, U.S. and Canada. The targeted officials will be barred from entry into the U.K., and any assets found in Britain will be frozen. "By acting with our partners, 30 of us in total, we are sending the clearest message to the Chinese government," he said.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council in February, the U.K. foreign secretary said rights violations in Xinjiang are "beyond the pale" and "taking place on an industrial scale." The British government in January announced a review to prevent exporting goods that may contribute to human rights abuses in Xinjiang. British businesses and organizations will face financial penalties if they do not meet their obligations to ensure their products are free from forced labor.

Additional reporting by Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa in London

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