26th Sep 2023

China-EU relations on knife-edge after sanctions

Western powers have shamed China on Uighur abuses in a wall of solidarity, which saw China fire back at MEPs, jeopardising a trade treaty.

The EU started the ball rolling by naming four Chinese officials and one entity to face travel-bans and asset-freezes on Monday (22 March).

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The US, the UK, and Canada followed suit with the same or related names, showing a united Western front seldom seen in recent times of former US president Donald Trump and Brexit.

The EU named Chen Mingguo, Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan, Zhu Hailun, and the state-owned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

It called Zhu the "architect" of a "large-scale surveillance, detention, and indoctrination programme" against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

It cited the others for creating a "forced workforce, in particular in cotton fields" and "arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment".

The EU sanctions are backed by classified "evidence-packages" designed to stand up in court.

And they give the lie to Chinese denials of what human rights groups have called "genocide" of the Xinjiang-region Muslims.

"Chinese authorities will continue to face consequences as long as atrocities occur," the US state department said the same day.

Uighur persecution was "one of the worst human rights crises of our time", UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab added.

The sanctions came amid already heightened geopolitical tensions.

"The EU should not form an anti-China front with the US," Chinese EU ambassador Zhang Ming warned last week.

And China's blowback threatened to jeopardise ratification of an EU-China investment treaty, due by MEPs later this year.

The European Parliament (EP) was already growing rebellious over Chinese behaviour, such as its refusal to let EU diplomats meet jailed Uighur activist and EP-prize laureate Ilham Tohti.

But China rattled its cage on Monday by blacklisting five MEPs and three national MPs in retaliation against the EU move.

It claimed they "harm China's sovereignty and ... maliciously spread lies" and targeted their "families".

"China's sanctions on MEPs ... and EU bodies are unacceptable and will have consequences," EU parliament president David Sassoli said.

"The Chinese leadership has let me know that I will not be allowed to visit the mainland, Hong Kongm, or Macao. But then there is Taiwan. :-)," Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP on the blacklist tweeted.

"As long as the genocide on the Uighurs continues, I will not be silent," Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch MP on China's blacklist, also said.

EU foreign ministers learned of the Chinese decision while they were meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told press.

But "there will be no change" to the EU blacklist, he said.

China also sanctioned the "Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union" and the "Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament," among other European targets.

The two committees potentially include dozens of EU officials and diplomats.

But China's EU embassy declined to clarify if these people and their families were also being hit, when asked by EUobserver.

And a Chinese regime mouthpiece, The Global Times, threatened to escalate the affair.

"By following the US' suit, the EU has forgotten one thing: the tit-for-tat contest between China and the US is a result of serious consideration, and any possible result will make the world quiver with its consequences", The Global Times said on Monday, quoting a Chinese academic called Cui Hongjian.

Meanwhile, the new EU sanctions also covered two Libyans, two North Koreans, two Russians, one official from South Sudan, and an entity from Eritrea.

The Libyan militia chiefs were named over a massacre in the town of Tarhuna.

The North Korean government ministers organised "deliberate starvation and other inhuman treatment" of prisoners.

The Russians "personally supervised and took part in torturing detainees" in a purge on LGBTI people in Chechnya.

The African countries were named over abductions, executions, and torture.

Hungary was the only EU country to break ranks.

He did not use his veto against the measures, but Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó told Hungarian press in Brussels on Monday that the EU sanctions were "meaningless, exhibitionist, and harmful".

They could "poison" EU-China business ties and "such a strategic decision should have been, at least, debated by the EU summit of European leaders," Szijjártó said.

Ethiopia next?

But for all that, the EU, the same day, threatened to also blacklist Ethiopians if they did not let humanitarian aid into the war-torn Tigray region.

The EU was "ready to use all the tools at its disposal", Borrell said, referring to reports of civilian massacres and mass-scale rape, including by allied Eritrean forces.

The EU ministers extended sanctions against the Myanmar junta, which Borrell said had killed 250 pro-democracy protesters.

And they discussed potential sanctions on Turkey if its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, went back to gas-drilling in Cypriot or Greek-claimed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The EU aims to give more money for Syrian refugees in Turkey and to offer him customs perks when EU leaders discuss relations at a video-summit on Thursday.

But it should be ready to strike at the Turkish economy, including with sanctions against tourism, if Erdoğan returned to bad form, EU institutions said in an internal paper seen by EUobserver


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