The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials, including a top security official, for violating human rights in Xinjiang, to which Beijing responded by blacklisting Europeans in a rare escalation of diplomatic tensions.
Unlike the United States, the EU has tried to avoid confrontation with Beijing, but a decision to impose the first significant sanctions since an EU arms embargo in 1989 has inflamed tensions.
Accused of mass imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, among those targeted by the EU, included Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The EU said Chen was responsible for “serious human rights abuses.”
In its official newspaper, the EU accused Chen of “arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment of Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their religious or religious freedom”.
Others affected by travel bans and asset freezes were: senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.
However, the EU avoided sanctioning Xinjiang’s top official, Chen Quanguo, who is blacklisted by the United States, suggesting that European governments were seeking a softer approach.
China denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang, saying its camps offer vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
Beijing responded immediately, saying it decided to impose sanctions on ten EU individuals, including European lawmakers, the EU’s main foreign policy decision – making body known as the Political and Security Committee and two leading think tanks.
German politician Reinhard Butikofer, who chairs the parliamentary delegation to China, was among the most notable figures affected. The non-profit Alliance of Democracies Foundation, founded by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was also blacklisted, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry.
Beijing was accused of entering China or doing business with it, accusing them of seriously harming the country’s sovereignty and interests over Xinjiang. China’s Foreign Ministry called on the EU to “correct its mistake” and not interfere in China’s internal affairs.
EU sanctions are largely symbolic and mark a significant hardening of the bloc’s policy towards China, which Brussels has long regarded as a benign trading partner but now sees as a systematic abuse of fundamental rights and freedoms.
The EU has not sanctioned China significantly since imposing an arms embargo in 1989 following the democratic breakdown in Tiananmen Square, although it targeted two hackers and a technology company in 2020 as part of broader cyber sanctions. The arms embargo is still in place.
All 27 EU governments agreed to the punitive measures, but Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called them “harmful” and “meaningless”, reflecting the bloc’s divisions on how to deal with China’s rise and to protect business interests.
China is the EU’s second largest trading partner after the United States and Beijing is both a large market and a major investor who has courted poorer and Central European states.
But the EU, which sees itself as a champion of human rights, is deeply concerned about the fate of the Uighurs.
Activists and UN rights experts say at least one million Muslims are being held in camps in the far western region of Xinjiang. Activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labor and sterilization.
EU sanctions affect officials believed to have designed and enforced the detention in Xinjiang and come after the Dutch parliament followed Canada and the United States when they called China’s treatment of the Uighurs’ genocide, which China rejects.