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EU agrees first sanctions on China in more than 30 years

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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks at the European Council building in Brussels. March 1, 2021.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks at the European Council building in Brussels. March 1, 2021.   -   Copyright  John Thys, Pool via AP
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The European Union has imposed the first sanctions against China in more than 30 years.

The new raft of measures is aimed at four Chinese officials and one entity believed to be involved in the alleged human rights violations of the Uyghur Muslin minority.

The international community has for months alleged that serious abuses, such as mass arbitrary detention, torture and forced political indoctrination, are taking place in concentration camps located in the Xingjian autonomous region.

China has repeatedly denied all allegations.

"This move, based on nothing but lies and disinformation, disregards and distorts facts, grossly interferes in China's internal affairs, flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, and severely undermines China-EU relations," China's foreign ministry said shortly after the EU unveiled the sanctions.

The move from Brussels represents the first punitive measure against Beijing since the arms embargo that the then-twelve member states imposed in 1989 on Communist China as a result of the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square. While other measures taken back then were later revised and suspended, the embargo remains in place today.

In a tit-for-tat reaction, China's Foreign Ministry sanctioned ten European individuals and four entities, including five Members of the European Parliament: Reinhard Butikofer (Germany, Greens), who currently chairs the parliament’s delegation for relations with China; Michael Gahler (Germany, EPP), who acts as the spokesman of the Europe's People Party (EPP) for foreign affairs; Raphaël Glucksmann (France, S&D), who chairs the parliament's special committee on foreign interference in democratic processes; and Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Bulgaria, Renew Europe) and Miriam Lexmann (Slovakia, EPP) who are both members of the foreign affairs committee.

Three members of national parliaments are also listed: Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma of the Dutch Parliament, Samuel Cogolati of the Belgian Federal Parliament and Dovile Sakaliene of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania. They all have in common that they have led resolutions describing the situation in Xinjiang as "genocide".

Scholars Adrian Zenz, from Germany, and Björn Jerdén, from Sweden, who are specialised in China studies, were named, too.

The European entities targeted by China are: 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 individuals concerned and their families are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China. They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China," the Chinese ministry said.

What did EU foreign ministers agree?

The sanctions on China were part of a broader package agreed by EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday while meeting in Brussels. The decision was taken by unanimity.

In total, ministers listed 11 people and four entities allegedly responsible for serious human rights violations in China, North Korea, Libya, Russia, South Sudan and Eritrea.

Separately, they also targeted 11 Myanmar officials, including the commander-in-chief of the army, over the military coup and ensuing repression inside the country.

The meeting featured an informal exchange with the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and specific debates on EU-Turkey relations and the Western Balkans.

The punitive measures became official on Monday afternoon after being published in the Official Journal of the European Union.

The sanctions consist of a visa ban and an asset freeze in the EU. Moreover, persons and entities inside the bloc are prohibited from making funds available, either directly or indirectly, to those listed.

The penalties are the result of a new mechanism, the so-called EU Magnitsky Act, which was adopted in December and has already been used to punish four senior Russian officials involved in legal proceedings against Russian opponent Alexei Navalny.

In the case of China, EU ministers selected four individuals who, in their view, are directly involved in the alleged human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang.

The selected high-ranking officials include Zhu Hailun, believed to be the "architect" of the large-scale surveillance, detention and indoctrination programme against the Uyghurs.

The other three are Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan and Chen Mingguo, who are deemed responsible for "arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief".

The penalised entity is Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) Public Security Bureau, a state-owned economic and paramilitary organisation considered to be in charge of security matters and the management of the detention centres in Xinjiang.

Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party Secretary in Xinjiang and Politburo member, seen as the top official in the region, was not blacklisted.

How did the targeted MEPs react?

The Chinese sanctions against Members of the European Parliament represent a major escalation in EU-China relations. Just three months ago, both sides signed a comprehensive investment deal after seven long years of negotiations. The agreement was cheered by European companies but was heavily criticised by MEPs, civil society, political observers and the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

Beijing's drastic move is poised to further complicate the deal's ratification, which depends on all national parliaments, as well as on the European hemicycle.

Calling the sanctions his "legion of honour" (the highest French order of merit), MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, one of the targeted lawmakers, said on Twitter he would continue to fight against the "crimes" of China.

"Your sanctions don't impress me, neither your exhortations to "self-criticize" and your threats," Glucksmann wrote in French.

Also on Twitter, his colleague Miriam M. Lexmann said: "If China continues with this kind of response it will make clear that it is not interested in being a partner but rather a systematic rival that undermines fundamental values and principles that are condicio sine qua non for any cooperation."

In a tongue-in-cheek response, Reinhard Bütikofer, one of the most outspoken critics of Beijing, remarked: "The Chinese leadership has let me know that I will not be allowed to visit the mainland, Hong Kong or Macao. But then there is Taiwan."

While not personally targeted, Manfred Weber, the chairman of the EPP, the largest group in the parliament, voiced his condemnation: "Attacking freely elected Members of Parliament shows us the contempt Beijing has for democracy. We will not be intimidated."

European Parliament President David Sassoli said China's decision "will have consequences".

Belgium and the Netherlands, who saw their national MPs targeted, also expressed their displeasure, with the Dutch government summoning the Chinese ambassador.

'A new atmosphere'

At the end of the foreign affairs council, Josep Borrell, the EU's chief diplomat, called China's decision "regrettable and unacceptable", arguing that it doesn't answer the bloc's "legitimate concerns" on human rights. Borrell urged Beijing to engage in dialogue instead of being "confrontational".

"For sure, it has created a new atmosphere," Borrell told reporters after Monday's meeting, adding that Chinese retaliation won't make Europe change its mind.

The new set of EU sanctions is part of a coordinated strategy with the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Following the announcement in Brussels, London and Ottawa published a raft of punitive measures against the same five Chinese targets.

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, followed suit minutes later, saying that US has also punished Wang Junzheng and Chen Mingguo. America had previously penalised Zhu Hailun and Wang Mingshan.

The United States has already taken the step of labelling the alleged repression of Uyghur Muslims as "genocide", a term that provoked an angry reaction from Beijing. Last month, the Dutch Parliament passed a non-binding motion employing similar language, becoming the first EU country to do so.

The coordinated action reflects one of the main foreign goals of US President Joe Biden, who has pledged to form an alliance of like-minded countries to counteract the growing global power and influence of China.