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China Faces New Multi-Country Sanctions Over Xinjiang Policies

Umer Jan, 12, takes part in a rally to encourage Canada and other countries to consider labeling China's treatment of its Uighur population and Muslim minorities as genocide, outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2021.

Several western countries announced new sanctions this week against Chinese officials involved in the mass detentions of ethnic Uyghur Muslims, marking a new united front to pressure Beijing over its human rights abuses.

The European Union sanctioned four Chinese Communist Party officials in Xinjiang, including a top security director, and one entity, under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program, a decision later mirrored by Britain and Canada. It is the EU’s first significant sanction against China since the EU arms embargo after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

The U.S. added two of the four individuals to its sanction list whom it had not sanctioned before. The sanctioned individuals face travel bans and asset freezes.

The foreign ministers of Canada and Britain issued a joint statement with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying the three countries are united in demanding that Beijing end its “repressive practices” in Xinjiang.

“These actions demonstrate our ongoing commitment to working multilaterally to advance respect for human rights and shining a light on those in the PRC government and CCP responsible for these atrocities,” Blinken said in a statement.

Over 1 million detained

At least 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang, according to U.N. rights experts. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labor and sterilizations.

Analysts said this week’s sanctions are notable because they involve large economies that are important trading partners for Beijing and show that Washington is not alone in trying to publicly pressure China to improve the treatment of its citizens.

Julian Ku, Senior Associate Dean and law professor at Hofstra University, told VOA, “It changes the narrative for China, which has been saying this is a U.S. plot to keep China down.”

He said the move shows many countries around the world “have a similar view of the United States as to how serious what's going on in Xinjiang is and that the rest of the world should care about what's going on. That does change the conversation.”

Ku said the Biden administration's coordinated strategy contrasts with former President Donald Trump, who Ku said tended to make policy decisions without working with traditional allies.

Christopher Balding, an American professor who taught at Peking University's HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen for nine years, said the sanctions still remain a “symbolic” step forward because they focus on regional officials, not anyone at the central government level. He said the Biden administration deserves credit for pulling the coordinated action together, but it’s only a small step forward.

“There's a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done with regards to changing how Europe and even Canada are going to react to China, and how they're going to treat China,” he said.

Australia and New Zealand followed up with a statement expressing “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.”

Ku said it’s worth waiting to see if other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa would support the sanctions.

China has denied all accusations of abuse and hit back with similar sanctions against 10 individuals and four entities in the EU.