China bristled Tuesday after western nations lined up to impose sanctions over its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the first concerted international action against Beijing since Joe Biden took office.

Rights groups believe at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in the northwestern region, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.

A verified drone shot from 2019 of Uighur prisoners being transferred by train.

China has strongly denied the allegations and says training programmes, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the region.

On Monday, the EU, Britain and Canada blacklisted four former and current officials in the Xinjiang region, while Washington, which had already sanctioned two of those officials in July 2020, added the other pair to the list.

New Zealand and Australia on Tuesday welcomed the measures, but both stopped short of introducing their own on China, a major export market for their goods. 

Beijing snapped back immediately, announcing entry bans on 10 Europeans — including five members of the European Parliament — as well as two EU bodies and two think-tanks. 

Then China’s vice foreign minister Qin Gang summoned the head of the European Union delegation to China.

“The EU sanctions against China, based on Xinjiang-related lies and false information, are inconsistent with the facts, have no legal basis and are unreasonable,” the foreign ministry said after the meeting.

“China urges the European side to realise the seriousness of its mistake, correct it and stop confrontation so as to avoid causing greater damage to China-EU relations.”

The unified action signalled a possible watershed in the diplomatic approach towards China.

Britain’s foreign ministry said the sanctions were “the clearest possible signal that the international community is united in its condemnation of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

Under Biden’s new administration Washington has cajoled allies to come together against Beijing, with abuses in Xinjiang the first – and sorest — of a range of sticking points between China and the West, that also include the crackdown on Hong Kong and perceived trade abuses.

Antony Blinken. Photo: US Department of State/Ron Przysucha, via Flickr.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China “continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” and called on Beijing to “bring an end to the repression of Uyghurs”.

The sanctions, whose impact is mainly symbolic, mark the first time Brussels and London have targeted China over accusations of widespread abuses and forced labour in Xinjiang. 

They last hit Beijing over human rights breaches when they imposed an arms embargo in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. 

‘Brazen and ridiculous’

China’s tit-for-tat sanctions drew condemnation from the EU.

Reinhard Butikofer, a German legislator targeted by the sanctions, told AFP the response was “brazen and ridiculous”.

The EU faces a delicate balancing act over relations with China, as it treats Beijing as a rival but also a potential economic partner.

Late last year Brussels sealed a major investment pact with China after seven years of negotiations.

European Union Flags in Brussels. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski, via Flickr.

The pact will eventually need to be approved by the European parliament — but there has been growing opposition to signing off on the deal. 

Biden’s top diplomat Blinken is on his way to Brussels, where he will discuss foreign policy with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Blinken exchanged fiery barbs with Chinese officials during their first high-level talks last week, dimming the potential for a quick reset to relations between the countries which hit a nadir under Donald Trump.

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