The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada each announced sanctions against China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, a coordinated effort aimed at holding Beijing accountable for a years-long campaign against Uyghurs and other minority groups in the northwestern Chinese region.
The diplomatic push, announced Monday, comes after a tense meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials and amid growing calls for democracies to work together to take on an increasingly authoritarian and assertive Beijing.
The European Union was first to move, saying early Monday that it would punish four Chinese officials and the Xinjiang public security bureau with travel bans and freeze their assets – its most significant measures since an arms embargo after the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square.
China quickly responded, leveling similar measures against a long list of its European critics.
Not long after, the United States, Canada and Britain jumped in. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced midday that the United States will add two names to its existing Xinjiang sanctions list.
Britain committed for the first time to freeze assets and ban travel for the same Chinese officials as the European Union did, as well as a Xinjiang security body. Canada said it would sanction the same officials and security body as Britain did.
The U.S., British and Canadian statements stressed that the moves were the result of close cooperation. “We stand united with the UK, Canada, and the EU in promoting accountability for those who abuse human rights,” Blinken wrote in a tweet.
Although the sanctions are largely symbolic, they are sure to complicate ties between China and the rest of the world.
Under President Donald Trump, the United States vowed to take a strong stance on China, but for the most part it did so alone. The Biden administration has stressed the importance of rallying allies to the cause, saying the scale of the challenge requires collective action. Monday’s moves appear to be a step in that direction.
The E.U. sanctions focus on four senior Chinese officials involved in designing and implementing policy in Xinjiang, as well as the region’s much-feared public security bureau.
The British list targets the same senior officials but names a different security entity.
Neither the European Union list nor the British one includes the Chinese Communist Party’s top official in the region, Chen Quanguo, who was named in more-robust U.S. sanctions last year.
Despite extensive reporting, satellite imagery and witness testimony, Beijing denies human rights abuses in Xinjiang, claiming that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are thriving there.
The countermeasures it issued Monday took aim at outspoken members of the European Parliament; Dutch, Belgian and Lithuanian officials; a prominent German think tank focused on China; a Danish foundation; and two European scholars known for their work regarding the Xinjiang region.
The sanctions block those on the list and their families from traveling to the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Macao, or from doing business with China, according to a news release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The news release condemns the officials for “lies” about the “so-called human rights issues in Xinjiang.”
Raphaël Glucksmann, a French member of the European Parliament who has spoken out on Xinjiang, tweeted Monday that he considered the sanction a “badge of honor.”
In recent months, Europe has been accused of standing idle while the United States took the lead on issues such as Xinjiang.
Late last year, the European Union and China reached an agreement in principle on a much-delayed investment pact, a move seen as a diplomatic victory for Beijing and a snub to the incoming Biden administration.
Critics of that deal asked why Europe was knitting itself closer to an increasingly authoritarian China rather than tackling issues the European Union says it cares about, including forced labor. The fate of that deal remains uncertain.
In the run-up to Monday’s announcement, China’s Communist Party-controlled media warned that there will be “no escape” for “some EU institutions and poorly behaving individuals” if the bloc pressed ahead.
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The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.