China has imposed sanctions on 10 UK organisations and individuals, including the former leader of the Conservative party Iain Duncan Smith, over what it called the spreading of “lies and disinformation” about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The sanctions are a response to Britain’s decision to implement measures against four Chinese officials on Monday and follow a similar punishment by China against a group of MEPs, European academics and thinktanks.
The British politicians named have been at the forefront of the year-long campaign calling for sanctions against China over the alleged mass rounding up of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
China has repeatedly claimed the camps are re-education centres targeted at terrorists, and the Chinese embassy in London held a two-hour briefing to insist Xinjiang was entirely free of repression. The presentation live from Xinjiang included videos and glowing testimonies by those that say that mosques had been cleaned and tidied or claimed their supposed social indiscipline had been cured by attending boarding schools.
The chargée d’affaires, Yang Xiaoguang, said: “China was not the first to shoot nor will it be passive or submissive to threats from the outside. Today’s world is not the world of 140 years ago. The Chinese people will not be bullied. We will not stir up trouble but if others do we are not afraid. Our measures are accurate and restrained. There is a saying in China: he who causes the trouble should seek to solve the trouble. We have no intention of seeking to expand the confrontation, but if others do, we shall keep them company.”
The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, responding to the expected Chinese countermeasures, said: “It speaks volumes that, while the UK joins the international community in sanctioning those responsible for human rights abuses, the Chinese government sanctions its critics.
“If Beijing wants to credibly rebut claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it should allow the UN high commissioner for human rights full access to verify the truth.”
Boris Johnson moved swiftly to show his solidarity. “The MPs and other British citizens sanctioned by China today are performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uighur Muslims,” he said.
“Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them.”
Yang said the UN visit had been postponed by Covid, but questioned whether the body could be impartial in such a politicised atmosphere. He said China was not prepared to allow UN access on the basis of lies, adding: “That is not the way the world works. A sovereign state has its own power to decide whether to allow a foreign country or mission to enter into its territory to start this so called investigation.”
The sanctions announced by Beijing are largely symbolic in that they ban the group from travelling to China, and freeze any assets they may have in China, but at issue is whether relations spiral downwards, or whether the dispute is partitioned from the wider relationship between the UK and China.
The Chinese have stopped short of targeting any minister or member of the executive, but have hit two select committee chairmen, a vice-chair of the Conservative party, prominent officers of the China Research Group as well as senior human rights lawyers.
Apart from Duncan Smith, the Tory MPs named are Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, and Nus Ghani, a member of the business select committee. Neil O’Brien, head of the Conservative policy board and China Research Group officer, is targeted, as is Tim Loughton, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
In the Lords, David Alton, a crossbencher, and Helena Kennedy QC, of Labour, have had sanctions imposed. They were at the helm of the ultimately fruitless campaign to persuade the UK government to give the UK high court a role in investigating whether genocide is occurring in Xinjiang. The barrister Geoffrey Nice, leading an independent tribunal into the treatment of the Uighurs and at the helm of the prosecution of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević over the Balkans war, has also been singled out.
The only academic targeted is Joanne Nicola Smith Finley from Newcastle University. The selected entities include the China Research Group, established by a group of Conservative MPs, the Conservative Human Rights Commission and Essex Court Chambers, which, instructed by the World Uighur Congress, gave an opinion that a genocide was occurring.
Duncan Smith said he would wear the sanction like a “badge of honour”. He tweeted: “It’s our duty to call out the Chinese Govt’s human rights abuse in #HongKong & the genocide of the #Uyghurs. Those of us who live free lives under the rule of law must speak for those who have no voice. If that brings the anger of China down on me, I’ll wear that badge of honour.”
Smith Finley also responded, saying: “It seems I am to be sanctioned by the PRC government for speaking the truth about the #Uyghur tragedy in #Xinjiang, and for having a conscience.”
Ghani said she would not be intimidated and the sanctions would only galvanise greater interest in what was happening. “The west sanctioned China for abusing human rights; we have been sanctioned for exposing the abuse of human rights.” She said the embassy had been trying to threaten her on social media, an issue she had already raised in the Commons.
Raab has accused China of industrial-scale human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but the UK has been eager not to see the conflict over human rights bleed into other issues such as trade, climate change co-operation and the mutual exchange of students, a financial lifeline for many British universities. The Foreign Office has, unlike the US, resisted imposing sanctions on Chinese officers involved in the suppression of democracy in the former British colony of Hong Kong. It has also refused to term what is happening in China as genocide, saying this is a matter for the UN or the international courts.
In practical terms, the political climate for advocates of greater economic cooperation between the UK and China will prove harsher, as in the EU. The UK has already banned the Chinese firm Huawei from the UK 5G networks, and is passing new laws tightening the access of overseas investors to sensitive UK markets. Tugendhat has been at the helm of the calls to tighten that regime.
The four-day delay in the Chinese response to the UK’s actions on Monday contrasts with the immediate reprisals imposed on EU critics of China, and either reflects political divisions within China or surprise that the UK government had abandoned its months-long resistance to imposing sanctions.
China acted immediately against the EU after its foreign affairs council on Monday imposed sanctions on the same four Chinese officials and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.
The China Research Group said in a statement: “It is tempting to laugh off this measure as a diplomatic tantrum. But in reality it is profoundly sinister and just serves as a clear demonstration of many of the concerns we have been raising about the direction of China under Xi Jinping. Other mainstream European thinktanks have also been sanctioned this week and it is telling that China now responds to even moderate criticism with sanctions, rather than attempting to defend its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”