China and the World

The freeze, then the fury

More trouble ahead as Beijing bristles at Xinjiang sanctions campaign

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with China's State Councilor Wang Yi in Guilin

Lavrov: from Russia with love

The external temperatures were subzero at a much-heralded meeting of China’s and America’s top diplomats in Alaska last week. And the mood inside showed little sign of warming up as both sides diverged from prepared remarks to take verbal pot shots at one another.

Most of the feedback on the summit in Anchorage was that neither side tried too hard to reset the relationship. But events this week have been even more polarising.

On Monday the European Union, Britain and Canada joined the Americans in a joint statement calling for “China to end its repressive practices against Uighur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang, and to release those arbitrarily detained”. Four former and current officials in the Xinjiang region will face sanctions from the group for alleged human rights abuses.

The sanctions stirred a livid response from the Chinese foreign ministry, which blasted reports of abuses in Xinjiang as “nothing but lies and disinformation”. This was followed by a furious review of the human rights records of the countries behind this week’s action. The transatlantic slave trade, the atrocities of former German regimes, “crimes against humanity” by the French in Algeria, and the way that the Canadians “openly advocated the killing of the Indian bloodline” in the 1870s all came in for comment, alongside criticism of more recent US military interventions and foreign policy errors.

Beyond its frustration China’s foreign ministry was also keen to highlight a few friendships of its own, headlining its high-octane press briefing with news of the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a short visit on Monday. The visit was a taste of how China-Russia coordination would offset “US troublemaking”, the Global Times reported, and Lavrov showed willing by condemning Washington’s “instinct to use sanctions at every turn”.

Yet as a number of commentators have pointed out, the people on the Xinjiang blacklist are relatively junior. If Western governments had really wanted to ratchet up the pressure they could have cited individuals higher up the political hierarchy.

By punishing a small group of people, Washington’s allies have also avoided targeting trade or investment flows with China, which would have a more substantive impact.

No doubt there are commercial considerations at play here, which might also have been a factor in why Australia and New Zealand stopped short of joining the sanctions, despite putting out a statement of support. Both countries say they lack the legislative process for a speedy rollout of sanctions against individuals. But both count on China as a major destination for their exports as well, with the Australians already badly affected by unofficial restrictions on shipments of goods including coal, seafood, meat and wine into the Chinese market.

Beijing also snapped back against the EU’s role in the Xinjiang sanctions by announcing entry bans on 10 Europeans, including five members of the European Parliament. This seems likely to stir up the parliament, which has to ratify an investment treaty agreed last year (see WiC523). In an early sign of trouble parliamentary officials immediately cancelled a meeting to discuss the deal in protest at the Chinese countermeasures.

More foreign business interests could suffer collateral damage in China should the row escalate.

H&M, for example, found itself on the receiving end of Chinese fury this week. This was thanks to a statement published last year in which the Swedish retailer said it would no longer source raw materials from the cotton-producing Xinjiang region. More recently this was referenced in a social media post about H&M by the China Youth League which was widely forwarded after news of the EU sanctions. The company’s stores on e-commerce platforms have been shut down and angry consumers have been calling for a nationwide boycott of its bricks-and-mortar network as well.

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