EU Issues Rare Sanctions on Chinese Officials for Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang — What Implications for Human Rights Advocacy on Tibet?

In China’s remote northwestern region of Xinjiang, approximately 800,000 to two million people — largely Uighurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, nearly all Muslim — have been detained since 2017 in what the Chinese government calls “re-education camps.” Children of those detained in Xinjiang are often forced to stay in state-run orphanages; and there is evidence that detainees are subjected to surveillance, torture, and forced labor, with reports of female detainees being subjected to sexual abuse and sterilization. Documenting the full scope of violations is currently impossible. However, due to a lack of publicly available data, restrictions on access to the region, as well as China’s refusal to share information about the camps.

A site in 2019 that is believed to be a “re-education” camp in Xinjiang. Credit: Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Like the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, Tibetans have been violently suppressed by Chinese authorities and are denied fundamental human rights. Most recent reports show that China is tightening its grip on Tibet and has been bringing Xinjiang-style mass forced labor to Tibet. Tibetans are facing a range of human rights violations aside from forced labor. Other initiatives such as the 2013 One Belt One Road — a massive infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe, which includes railway networks and highways passing through Tibet — poses a threat of forced eviction affecting over 2 million Tibetan Nomads and a threat to the survival of Tibetan culture. Additionally, as part of the project, the Chinese authorities branded Tibet as a romantic ‘Shangri La’ destination, resulting in a tourist boom in Tibet of up to 35 million visitors in 2020. These policies resulted in destructive impacts on Tibet and Tibetans including an increased influx of Chinese settlers and tourists; increased risk of natural disasters such as earthquakes; increased military presence; and possible drastic changes in demographics in a short period of time. Consequently, without immediate intervention by other international organizations and states, the situation of human rights abuses in Tibet can become as gravely urgent and severe as the situation in Xinjiang.

Graffiti from a rally in Hong Kong in support of Uighurs in Xinjiang marks the years China “incorporated” Xinjiang and Tibet. Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP Via Getty Images

Since evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang emerged in 2017, powerful state actors such as the United States, the European Union (EU), Britain, and Canada have publicly condemned China’s oppressive policies. Most recently, last month the EU imposed sanctions on China’s public security bureau and four Chinese officials, including a top security director, whom the EU deems to be involved in designing and implementing policies in Xinjiang. The sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, signal that the EU is willing to impose economic penalties in response to China’s repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Systematic abuse of a minority ethnic group is not a new phenomenon in China. In Tibet, the Chinese government has suppressed Tibetans’ cultural and religious freedoms since its occupation of the region in 1950. Even though China’s abusive policies and practices in Xinjiang and Tibet are not equivalent, since 2014 the Chinese government has increasingly pursued an “assimilationist” approach in Tibet and Xinjiang, with policies aimed to change the way ethnic minorities think and act to ensure compliance with the Chinese Communist Party. These coercive assimilation policies pose a threat to the linguistic, cultural, and religious identity of Tibetans and Uighurs, as well as other non-Han Chinese populations in Xinjiang. Under the pretense of “anti-separatism,” “anti-extremism,” and “counter-terrorism,” China subjects non-Han Chinese people in both Tibet and Xinjiang to systematic human rights abuses, including mass detention, forced labor, and “re-education” in furtherance of forced assimilation.

The issuing of sanctions by the EU was surprising, given that the EU has a long history of avoiding confrontation with China, its second-largest trading partner after the United States. The EU’s 1989 arms embargo in response to Tiananmen Square represents its last significant sanctions imposed on China. Speaking in support of the sanctions, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the treatment of Uighurs amounted to “appalling violations of the most basic human rights” and “one of the worst human rights crises of our time.”

In response to EU sanctions, China imposed its own sanctions on five EU Parliamentarians, two EU committees, three members of national parliaments, and a number of European think tanks and experts on China. In turn, this prompted warnings from several EU parliamentarians, saying they would not ratify the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that was agreed to last December. Additionally, on March 23, 2021, the EU Parliament, the approval of which is required for passing the CAI, cancelled its meeting to review the agreement. The EU Parliament’s second largest group, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, made clear that the lifting of Chinese sanctions was a condition to the resumption of CAI talks.

The delay and uncertainty lingering around the EU-China CAI represents a significant loss of business opportunities for both the EU and China. For China, the deal had marked success in securing closer trade and investment ties with the EU. For European companies, the CAI also means greater access to the vast Chinese market. Nevertheless, the EU maintains its position on the sanctions, showing that it does not always put its business interests first, especially in the face of serious human rights abuses.

Following a report that China was forcing hundreds of thousands of members of Chinese ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, into manual labor in Xinjiang’s cotton fields, many Western brands including Nike and H&M expressed “concerns” about Xinjiang labor. These companies have since experienced backlash and boycotts by Chinese consumers and media outlets. Above is a poster shared by People’s Daily, China’s largest state-controlled newspaper, with the hashtag “I support Xinjiang’s cotton.” Credit: People’s Daily.

As Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch lawmaker who has since been put on China’s sanctions list, tweeted: “As long as China commits genocide on the Uighurs, I will not remain silent. These sanctions are proof that China is susceptible to outside pressure. I hope my European colleagues will seize this moment to speak out as well.” Since the human rights abuses and oppressive policies enacted against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are also severe in Tibet, one of the Clinic’s partner organizations, the Tibet Advocacy Coalition, has been calling for the EU and other governments to not only urgently and strongly condemn China’s human rights violations in Tibet, but also “implement Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese officials and government bodies responsible for human rights violations perpetrated against Tibetans.” (‘Magnitsky-style’ restrictions, [BCB3] first enacted by the US in 2012 with EU and others states subsequently following suit, refers to targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on individuals involved in human rights violations). The Clinic continues working with our partner organizations to ensure that the EU as well as other governments protect not only the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, but also other groups, including the Tibetans, who are suffering from China’s oppressive policies.

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.