China slaps UK with sanctions after being accused of rights abuses against Uighur Muslims

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China announced sanctions on British individuals and entities Friday following the UK joining the EU and others in sanctioning Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. The move was the opening salvo in its latest full-bore response to criticism and sanctions from the West.

A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the move by the Western bloc was based on “nothing but lies and disinformation, flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, and severely undermines China-UK relations.”

Britain’s ambassador to China had been summoned for a diplomatic protest, the statement said. Sanctioned individuals and groups would be barred from visiting Chinese territory and banned from having financial transactions with Chinese citizens and institutions.

At a daily news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying unleashed a string of accusations against the US, the UK, allied nations and portions of the Western media, saying they had been collaborating to subvert China's unity and development.

Sanctions against Chinese officials over Xinjiang are part of an elaborate plot to destabilize the region and do not reflect any real concern for the rights of Muslims, Hu said, saying Beijing's response was necessary to “defend China's interests and dignity."

“For a lengthy period of time, the US, UK and others have felt free to say whatever they like without allowing others to do the same," Hua said. Those days are over and the West will “have to gradually get used to it," Hua said.

The latest sanctions and the harsh tone of Hua's comments reflect China's increasingly tough diplomacy under nationalist leader Xi Jinping, who has pledged to uphold China's interests at any cost. Over recent days, China has blocked already highly limited BBC broadcasts into the country and put two Canadians on trial in apparent retribution for that country's detention of an executive of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

China has rejected all criticism over its policies in Xinjiang, along with its crackdown on opposition figures in Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy China claims as its own territory. It has shrugged off US sanctions against officials accused of squelching democracy in Hong Kong and angrily denounced a British plan to offer a path to residency and citizenship to millions of citizens of its former colony.

Hua opened her briefing with a video clip of a former aide to retired US Secretary of State Colin Powell saying the American military presence in Afghanistan, which shares a narrow border with China, was partly an effort to thwart Beijing's rise. She also named the National Endowment for Democracy and the Central Intelligence Agency as working covertly to sow instability.

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British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denounced the sanctions and urged Chinese authorities to allow representatives from the UN into Xinjiang to “verify facts” if it wants to “credibly rebut claims of human rights abuses.” China says diplomats are welcome in the region but only under Beijing-imposed conditions.

China “sanctions its critics,” in contrast to the UK and the rest of the international community who “sanction human rights abuses," Raab said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson lent his support to those sanctioned.

"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," Johnson tweeted.

"Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them."

Nine British individuals and four institutions were placed on the sanctions list, including member of Parliament Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission. Duncan Smith is a former leader of the Conservatives.

China's sanctions are the latest move in an increasingly bitter row over Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of detaining more than 1 million members of Uighur and other Muslim minority groups, using forced labor and imposing coercive birth control measures.

Chinese state TV called Thursday for a boycott of Swedish retail chain H&M as Beijing lashed out at foreign clothing and footwear brands following Monday’s decision by the 27-nation European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada to impose travel and financial sanctions on four Chinese officials blamed for abuses in Xinjiang. Cotton and other agricultural products form a major component of the local economy in vast but thinly populated Xinjiang.

Companies ranging from Nike to Burberry that have well-established presences in China were also targeted online, with some Chinese celebrities saying they were severing endorsement deals.

“China is firmly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and warns the UK side not go further down the wrong path. Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions," the Foreign Ministry said.

Others on the Foreign Ministry sanctions list included politicians, scholars and human rights activists Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien, David Alton, Tim Loughton, Nusrat Ghani, Helena Kennedy, Geoffrey Nice and Joanne Nicola Smith Finley. The China Research Group, established by a group of Conservative MPs, independent research group Uighur Tribunal and the Essex Court Chambers, a law firm that also described Chinese policies toward minorities in Xinjiang as crimes against humanity and genocide, were also listed.

Ghani, a member of Parliament who is of Muslim heritage, said she “won’t be intimidated” by Beijing’s “extraordinary” move.

“This is a wakeup call for all democratic countries and lawmakers that we will not be able to conduct our day-to-day business without China sanctioning us for just attempting to expose what’s happening in Xinjiang and the abuse against the Uighurs,” she told BBC radio.

Numerous other Chinese government departments and state media outlets joined in condemning the Western sanctions.

The Xinjiang government issued a lengthy statement touting economic growth, political stability and population increase in the region and pointing to violence and violations of human rights in the US, Britain, Canada and elsewhere and chaos brought by military interventions in Iraq and Libya.

“Any plot to to undermine Xinjiang's prosperity and development ... will certainly be doomed to shameful failure," the statement said.

China's ruling Communist Party and nominally independent nationalists operating mainly online have a long history of attacking foreign firms and even entire countries seen as insulting China's national dignity or harming the country's core interests.

South Korean retail giant Lotte saw its China business destroyed after it provided land for a US air defense system that Beijing objected to, while relations with Norway were strained for years after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to pro-democracy writer Liu Xiaobo, who died in a Chinese prison in 2017.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)