Beijing’s European sanctions are also a bid to control who tells the China story

China sanctioned several members of the European Parliament, as well as researchers, and diplomats, in response to the EU’s coordinated sanctions against Xinjiang officials.
China sanctioned several members of the European Parliament, as well as researchers, and diplomats, in response to the EU’s coordinated sanctions against Xinjiang officials.
Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo
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It was obvious that China would retaliate when the European Union blacklisted Chinese Communist Party officials that they accuse of violating the rights of Uyghur Muslims.

On Monday (March 22), the EU unveiled sanctions on four higher-ups in Xinjiang for their role in what it called a “large-scale surveillance, detention, and indoctrination program targeting Muslim ethnic minorities.” In turn, China sanctioned five members of the European Parliament, a subcommittee on human rights, and the German scholar Adrian Zenz, whose research has caused controversy in China. That was expected—the censured MEPs are vocal critics of Beijing’s human rights record and members of the hawkish Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), while Zenz is Public Enemy Number 1 in China.

But unexpectedly, China also included a centrist German think tank, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), and a Swedish scholar on China, Björn Jerdén, on the list. For European academics and researchers, who with the exception of Zenz have mostly been shielded from the rising tensions between Brussels and Beijing, it signals the end of an era. Those who spoke to Quartz describe a “day after” feeling of worry and confusion, with increasing doubts about the feasibility of future field work in China and pessimism about the future of EU-China relations.

“We knew something was coming”

Reinhard Bütikofer was sitting at his desk in Berlin when he read an editorial in a Chinese media outlet singling him out as someone who should be blacklisted if the EU sanctioned China. So “I wasn’t surprised when a while later, it was announced that I was indeed on the list,” he tells Quartz.

Bütikofer is particularly unpopular with the Chinese government because he’s a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and a frequent critic of the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He chairs the European Parliament’s China delegation and is a co-chair of IPAC. The state-owned Chinese tabloid Global Times recently published an editorial entitled “No. 1 on China’s sanction list, MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, should have been sanctioned earlier: senior expert.”

“We knew something was coming,” echoes Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of the Riga Stradins University China Studies Centre. (She was not named on the sanctions list but is set to begin working for MERICS as a short-term fellow on April 1.) She says that when China’s foreign ministry published its retaliatory sanctions list (link in Chinese) online, it began “spreading like wildfire” through WhatsApp groups and other networks of European China scholars.

MERICS’s inclusion on the list stands out because unlike some of the MEPs, who could be considered China “hawks,” it’s viewed as a middle-of-the-road think tank dedicated to increasing understanding of China—the European equivalent of, say, The Aspen Institute. The Global Times accuses it of peddling anti-China rhetoric. But “MERICS is not an institution that can in any way be seen as hostile to China, so targeting it is pretty hard to justify,” argues Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. “I suspect it’s because they had written reports that cover sensitive subjects.”

However, Tsang points out that “a lot of this is gesture politics.” China has been known to withhold visas from unfriendly individuals, for example, so even if these sanctions hadn’t been announced, “if particular researchers working for MERICS need to go to China, the Chinese can still deny that person a visa.”

Also, many scholars rely on information about China available online through social networks, official ministries, or corporate records—meaning that barring physical access to China won’t prevent all scholarly research. Zenz, for example, looks for evidence of mistreatment of Uyghurs in Chinese official documents.

Still, says Bērziņa-Čerenkova, the sanctions show that access to China is a privilege that can be withdrawn from scholars who are critical of its government. If there’s a silver lining, she says, it’s that “this has proved that the world really needs informed China scholars, now more than ever.” But personally, she feels a sense of loss.

“I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might not be able to go to China again or in the foreseeable future. I have been going to China for the last 17 years—not just to do field work or interviews, but to visit friends, to study, to learn, to argue, of course, to disagree in some cases, but mostly to understand, and to ultimately explain China in Europe, and try to not miss out on the complexity and the nuance. Right now I’m on hold, saddened, standing by my colleagues, and trying to make sense of what it means today and after today to be a China scholar.”

What’s next?

The UK, US, and Canada joined the EU in imposing sanctions against the same Xinjiang officials, in a coordinated global initiative. But while China hit back at the EU, at the time of this writing, it had not issued similar sanctions against the others.

That could be because the EU took the lead, says Tsang, and the Chinese government may not have been “prepared” for the coordinated nature of the sanctions. “It usually prefers to have a clear target,” he says.

Also, while China would expect something like this from Canada, the US, and increasingly, the UK, it would have come as an unpleasant surprise from the EU. China may have “perceived it as a personal insult because it felt that in the Western camp, the Europeans were the ones you could still talk to,” explains Bērziņa-Čerenkova. Brussels has refused to be drawn into the tensions between China and the US, and agreed to the terms of a sprawling investment agreement with China just weeks before US president Joe Biden was inaugurated.

That deal, known formally as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), is now in question. Bütikofer, who was opposed to the CAI before his name was added to China’s sanctions list, believes there’s “very scant possibility that ratification of the CAI will ever appear on the agenda of the European Parliament as long as the sanctions are still in force.”

That agreement will be submitted to the European Council for approval in the fourth quarter of 2021 and later to the Parliament for consent, so “at the moment there’s no decision to be taken,” explains Bütikofer. “But it’s not getting more probable, just the inverse, that this deal will ever see the light of day.”

Update: An earlier version of this piece described Adrian Zenz as a “controversial researcher.” We have amended this wording to reflect the fact that his work is considered controversial in China.