‘Xinjiang is a wonderful land,’ says China, hours after imposing sanctions on British public figures

Beijing claims human rights concerns driven by ‘fake reports cobbled together by people thousands of miles away’ as pressure grows on foreign leaders to take harder stance over abuses

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Friday 26 March 2021 16:16 GMT
<p>Chinese officials claim government has transfomed the lives of Uighirs </p>

Chinese officials claim government has transfomed the lives of Uighirs

The Chinese embassy in London gave a presentation titled “Xinjiang is wonderful land” hours after Beijing imposed sanctions on British public figures and institutions which had criticised the country’s human rights abuses against the province’s Uighur community. 

Yang Xiaoguang, the embassy’s charge d’affaires, claimed the Chinese government had transformed the lives of the Uighirs in the region by ending terrorism, lifting people out of poverty and instituting compulsory education.

He accused foreign countries, including Britain, of spreading misinformation about oppression based on false reports.

“Human rights cannot be defined by a few satellite images, fake reports cobbled together by people thousands of miles away or by the performance of anti-China activists,” said Mr Yang.

He also issued a public warning that China would retaliate against those who interfered in its affairs, saying: “China does not stir up trouble but China is not afraid of what others do. China never provokes confrontation with anyone but if anyone turns to confrontation with China we are ready to keep them company.”

Mr Yang was summoned to the Foreign Office later to be told that Chinese sanctions were “ unwarranted and unacceptable”. He has arrived recently at his post, taking over from ambassador Liu Xiaoming, a veteran diplomat whose long stint in London ended soon after another television appearance, an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC in July last year on the abuse of Uighurs. Then, too, there was a warning.“ If the UK goes that far to impose sanctions on any individuals in China, China will certainly make a resolute response to it”, Mr Liu stated. 

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The UK did not, in fact, impose sanctions on Chinese officials until earlier this week, long after the US, amid accusations by MPs and civil rights activists that tough talk by the government on Xinjiang and Hong Kong had not been followed by action.

Last Monday Britain, the US and Canada joined the European Union in blacklisting four current and former Xinjiang officials – Zhu Hailun, Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan and Chen Mingguo – to send “a clear message about human rights violations and abuses” against the Uighur population, a million of whom, according to the UN, are being held in internment camps.

The Chinese government furiously condemned the sanctions, and responded by sanctioning 10 figures in the EU, including Reinhard Butifoker, the German chairperson of the European Parliament’s committee on China, the academic Adrian Zenz, and the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies, which had carried out research on Xinjiang.

Now Britain is the subject of Beijing’s retaliation with MPs, lawyers, academics and institutions slapped with sanctions on Friday.

Among the individuals named are Tory MPs Sir Ian Duncan Smith, foreign affairs selection committe chair Tom Tugendhat, Nus Ghani, Tim Loughton, and Neil O’Brien, and two members of the House of Lords, David Alton and Helena Kennedy QC, barrister Geoffrey Nice, and Joanne Nicola Smith Finley, an Uighur expert at Newcastle University.  

Beijing also handed sanctions to the China Research Group, a Conservative parliamentary group, the independent research group Uyghur Tribunal, and Essex Court Chambers, a London law firm. 

None of the figures are linked directly to the government with the exception of Neil O’Brien, who is in charge of Downing Street’s policy board. No Labour politicians other than Baroness Kennedy were issued sanctions despite MPs such as Chris Bryant and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy being vociferous critics of China on human rights.

Beijing’s actions against the UK and EU will not have any direct impact on most of those people on the list and will not silence critics. The most significant impact is likely to be on trade. In the EU, angry MEPs and activists have demanded a rethink on the recently signed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which had already faced criticism in member states for ignoring human rights issues.  

This could pose a major problem for post-Brexit Britain, which needs Chinese but does not want to be seen to condone some of Beijing’s actions. The government’s approach to China has been contradictory and convoluted. Condemnation of Beijing by MPs and foreign secretary Dominic Raab over Hong Kong and Xinjiang has been followed by Boris Johnson telling a Downing Street roundtable of Chinese businesses that he was a “fervent sinophile”. The PM’s comments came after his government’s review into defence and international relations described China as “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.”

On Friday Lindy Cameron, the Chief Executive Officer of the NCSC ( National Cyber Security Centre) became the latest voice to warn about China, saying “ we must be clear-eyed about Chinese ambition in technological advancement. China will change the world we live in much more fundamentally than Russia will”.  thanks.

Britain will face pressure to take a firmer line on China, especially from the US. The government was forced to reverse its decision on letting the Chinese multinational, Huawei, into the 5G network after objections from the Trump administration and Washington’s policy towards Beijing has not softened under Joe Biden. This week the US president warned that China wanted to export autocracy condemning president Xi Jinping of “not having a democratic bone in his body”.

“We have to have democracies working together,” he stressed.  

The European Union has also vowed it will not back down to Beijing. An investment agreement with China is in doubt, according to the bloc’s trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis. “China’s retaliatory sanctions are regrettable and unacceptable. The prospects for ratification will depend on how the situation evolves,” he said. 

Kathleen van Brempt, MEP and spokesperson for the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament, was adamant the deal would not go through unless the Chinese lift the sanctions they have imposed. “That’s the condition on ratifying the investment agreement,” she said, “we will not be intimidated, we will not be silenced.”

The Chinese government’s campaign to prove “Xinjiang is a wonderful land” for Uighurs living there is not going to halt rising international criticism. As the positions of the EU, the US and other Five Eyes partners such as Australia continues to harden, Mr Johnson will find his balancing act with Beijing increasingly difficult to sustain. 

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