The UK-China sanctions war over human rights is set to worsen

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Last week, a global summit on climate change, organised by the UK, saw 35 countries come together to discuss, in the run-up to the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in November. But while an invitation was extended to China, its absence was clear. The UK’s ignored invite has been the latest stab in the political joust over human rights in recent weeks. Tim Summers, former British consulate-general in Hong Kong, said: “The tit-for-tat sanctions…have clearly damaged the UK-China relationship.”

The end of March saw sanctions issued to 10 individuals and four organisations in the UK who the Chinese government claimed “maliciously spread lies and disinformation”. The latest sanctions arrived only days after the UK government imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.

“The Chinese side urges the EU side to reflect on itself…It must stop lecturing others on human rights and interfering in their internal affairs,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. “Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions.”

Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee were among the individuals sanctioned, which will see them and their family barred from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

“It’s our duty to call out the Chinese Govt’s human rights abuse in #HongKong & the genocide of the #Uyghurs,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “If that brings the anger of China down on me, I’ll wear that badge of honour.”

Another sanctioned critic, a Uighur expert at Newcastle University, Jo Smith Finley, took to Twitter to say: “It seems I am to be sanctioned by the PRC (Chinese) government for speaking the truth about the #Uyghur tragedy in #Xinjiang, and for having a conscience.”

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The China Research Group, made up of members of parliament, and the Essex Court Chambers, which published a legal opinion describing China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide, were among the organisations facing sanctions. The Chinese government added that Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with all those sanctioned.

Deteriorating relationship

“In my judgment, the British government does not want to see the relationship deteriorate as it is conscious of a wide range of issues on which it needs to work with China, from climate change to economic development,” Summers warned. “But there is substantial pressure from some politicians in the UK, including in the ruling Conservative Party, for a more critical, or even hostile, approach to China.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson supported those targeted by sanctions, arguing that they were “performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims,” in Xinjiang. “Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them,” Johnson tweeted.

“That pressure will probably grow further,” Summers added. The UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab also hit back at China following the sanctions, saying that authorities were targeting the critics of its human rights violations. “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,” the foreign secretary said in a statement. “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.”

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The sanctions imposed by China were said to be retaliation for coordinated sanctions by the UK, US, Canada and the European Union for human rights abuses. “China is firmly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and warns the UK side not to go further down the wrong path,” the Chinese ministry said.

“We can expect to see the relationship continue to worsen over the coming months,” the now lecturer in the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong explained, ahead of the UK’s refused climate summit invitation.

Activists and United Nations human rights experts estimate at least one million Muslims have been imprisoned in camps in Xinjiang. Inside the camps, China has been accused of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations, which have been repeatedly denied by the state. China has maintained that its camps offer vocational training and are needed to ‘fight extremism’, however, it has refused to let anyone see inside.

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Millie Turner is an Eat News correspondent in the UK who has received accolades for her features. She writes with special focus on international politics, corporate corruption, and the climate crisis.


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