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EU to renew sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang

The European Union (EU) is set to renew sanctions on Chinese officials it has accused of "serious human rights violations" in the western region of Xinjiang for another year. The sanctions were first placed on four individuals and one entity in March 2019, and with the EU observing no improvement in human rights conditions in…

The European Union (EU) is set to renew sanctions on Chinese officials it has accused of “serious human rights violations” in the western region of Xinjiang for another year.

The sanctions were first placed on four individuals and one entity in March 2019, and with the EU observing no improvement in human rights conditions in the region, they are likely to be extended without a debate in December, according to multiple diplomats familiar with the situation.

Ambassadors in the EU’s powerful Coreper II committee will discuss the sanctions as part of the bloc’s overall human rights sanctioning regime on Nov 30, after which the extension will be approved during a meeting of ministers from EU member states on Dec 5. Diplomats dealing with human rights issues okayed the extension on Oct 3.

This would mean the sanctions will be rolled over in March, two years after they first came into force and helped usher in an unprecedented period of turbulence in the EU-China relationship.

It marked the bloc’s first sanctions targeting Chinese officials since the aftermath of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

China hit back almost immediately, imposing sanctions on 10 European individuals and four entities, including diplomats, officials, academics and politicians.

While these sanctions also ostensibly remain in place, detailed legal conditions were never made publicly available, meaning it is unclear how stringently they are being enforced.

In recent months, Chinese diplomats have engaged with some sanctioned entities, including the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank.

However, any discussions about removing the sanctions have borne little fruit, with Beijing’s envoys insisting that Brussels act first – an unlikely development given the pressure in Europe to push China harder on its human rights record.

One EU diplomat pointed to September’s United Nations (UN) report on human rights conditions in Xinjiang, which found that the actions of the Chinese government “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, has seen no improvement in the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

The European Parliament on Tuesday will hold a debate with the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell. Beijing’s human rights record is expected to come under the radar. The parliament has been pushing for more Chinese officials to be added to the list of sanctioned entities.

The fallout from the sanctions led to the collapse of a long-negotiated bilateral investment deal, while China’s close ties to Russia have placed relations with the EU under further strain, since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Yet tensions in recent weeks had eased amid diplomatic overtures. A series of national political leaders met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since before the coronavirus (Covid) pandemic in Beijing and Bali. Each stated a wish to maintain strong trade ties, even as they vowed to hold China to account for its human rights record.

Leaders of EU institutions, however, found themselves watching from the sidelines. It was expected that European Council President Charles Michel would meet Xi, but the meeting never materialised.

The four sanctioned Chinese officials are Zhu Hailun, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region; Wang Junzheng, the Communist Party Secretary for Tibet and previously head of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of Xinjiang; Wang Mingshan, secretary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Political and Legal Affairs Commission; and Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

Brussels has named the four as among the architects of what it described as a “large-scale surveillance, detention and indoctrination programme targeting Uygurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang, the far-western Chinese province where Beijing is accused of detaining a million Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in re-education camps.

Beijing denies the charges, saying the camps are vocational training centres and part of efforts to combat terrorism.

The sanctioned entity was the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, which the EU said was “responsible for serious human rights violations in China, in particular large-scale arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uygurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities”.