The EU is sanctioning China for the first time since Tiananmen Square

Some Western democracies believe that what’s happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang bears the hallmarks of a genocide. Chinese officials virulently disagree.
Some Western democracies believe that what’s happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang bears the hallmarks of a genocide. Chinese officials virulently disagree.
Image: REUTERS/Stringer
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On Monday (March 22), the EU, UK, US, and Canada announced coordinated sanctions against individuals and an entity they accuse of perpetrating human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China.

The individuals sanctioned, Zhu Hailun, Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan, and Chen Mingguo, are Communist Party officials. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau is a state-owned authority responsible for the region’s economy. They will be subject to asset and travel bans in the EU, UK, US, and Canada. The countries allege that, in different ways, the targets of the sanctions played a role in a “large-scale surveillance, detention, and indoctrination program targeting Muslim ethnic minorities,” and that this program involved “degrading treatment,” forced labor, and “systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief.”

China has always denied these allegations and says its networks of facilities for Uyghurs in Xinjiang are vocational training centers and reeducation camps designed to stamp out terrorism.

The EU also announced sanctions against alleged human rights violators in Russia, North Korea, Libya, South Sudan, and Eritrea, while the US also announced sanctions against individuals involved in the repression of protesters in Myanmar.

Soon after the EU published its sanctions list, China announced its own sanctions (link in Chinese) on 10 EU individuals and four entities, including several members of the European Parliament. All have been vocal about their opposition to China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. As of this writing, China has not imposed retaliatory sanctions in the UK, US, and Canada.

Today’s announcement marks the first time the EU has sanctioned China for human rights violations since 1989, when a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre. At the time, the European Council banned arms sales to China, halted all bilateral meetings with Chinese officials, suspended some types of exchanges with China, and extended the visas of Chinese students in the EU. Many of these sanctions have since been lifted, but the arms embargo remains in place.

Europe’s relationship with China today looks completely different. China has become the world’s second largest economy and one of the most powerful. The EU has sought closer ties with Beijing, recently agreeing on the terms of a sprawling investment agreement, which is currently waiting for the approval of the European Parliament. The investment has also drawn criticism from the individuals sanctioned by China.

The sanctions follow a vote in the Dutch Parliament and an announcement made by the outgoing US administration of president Donald Trump which both recognized China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as a “genocide.”

The EU has stopped short of recognizing the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide, and in this week’s sanctions, steered away from high-profile officials, such as Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang who is believed by many to be the architect of the current security measures targeting Uyghurs.

This story was updated to include news that the UK, US, and Canada also issued sanctions against Xinjiang officials.