The EU imposed sanctions on Monday on four Chinese officials, including a top security director, for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the first sanctions against Beijing since an arms embargo in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Accused of mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, those targeted with sanctions included Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The EU said Chen was responsible for “serious human rights violations”.
In its Official Journal, the EU accused Chen of “arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief”.
Others hit with travel bans and asset freezes were: senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng, the former head of China’s Xinjiang region, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.
China denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
While mainly symbolic, the sanctions mark a significant hardening in the EU’s policy towards China, which Brussels long regarded as a benign trading partner but now views as a systematic abuser of basic rights and freedoms.
They are also likely to inflame tensions between Brussels and Beijing. The EU had not sanctioned China since it imposed an arms embargo in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy crackdown. The arms embargo is still in place.
All 27 EU governments agreed to the punitive measures, but Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, called them “harmful” and “pointless”, 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 US and Beijing is both a big market and a major investor which has courted poorer and central European states.