On March 22, 2021, the EU, UK, US and Canada announced a range of coordinated sanctions to crack down on alleged serious human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The coordinated announcements comprised measures of various types, including asset freezes and travel bans against individuals and entities alleged to be involved in serious human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minority groups in the XUAR. The measures elicited the swift imposition of retaliatory sanctions by China against a group of EU individuals and institutions.

EU Measures

The European Council imposed new sanctions against four Chinese individuals and one entity under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, as follows:

  • Zhu Hailun (Former Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the XUAR, former Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the XUAR, and former Deputy Head of the 13th People’s Congress of the XUAR, a regional legislative body);
  • Wang Junzheng (Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of China’s XUAR, Political commissar of the XPCC, former Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the XUAR);
  • Wang Mingshan (Member of the Standing Committee of the Party Committee of the XUAR, Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the XUAR, former Director and Deputy Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB));
  • Chen Mingguo (Director of the XPSB since January 2021 and Vice-Chairman of the XUAR People’s Government); and
  • XPCC Public Security Bureau (in charge of implementing all policies of the XPCC relating to security matters, including the management of detention centres. The XPCC is a state-owned economic and paramilitary organization in China’s XUAR, which exercises administrative authority and controls economic activities in Xinjiang).

The precise reasons for the listings are available in the Annex to the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime (Regulation and the Decision). In particular, those listed are considered to be responsible for serious human rights violations, including large-scale surveillance, arbitrary detentions and indoctrination, systematic violations of freedom of religion or belief, degrading treatment as well as forced labor inflicted upon Uyghurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities.

The listed individuals and entities are subject to an asset freeze in the EU and EU persons and entities are prohibited from providing them with funds and economic resources. In addition, listed individuals are subject to a travel ban to the EU.

The new listings represent the first restrictive measures taken by the EU against China since the political arms embargo adopted by the European Council following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The new measures were only possible because they were adopted under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which allows the EU to impose sanctions against persons and entities involved in serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, regardless of where they occurred. Unlike most other EU sanctions frameworks, it is not directly targeting a specific country. In fact, it would not have been possible to adopt a sanctions framework which would be directly targeting China since the adoption of EU sanctions requires unanimity among all Member States and such consensus could not have been obtained for practical political reasons.

UK Measures

UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced the designation of four individuals and one entity under The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. The UK notice of designation states that the measures target Chinese government officials and a Xinjiang security body responsible for the administration of China’s so-called “re-education” policy in the XUAR. Each of the designated persons allegedly is responsible for serious violations of human rights against Uyghurs and other minority groups that have taken place in so-called “training centres” in the XUAR.

The UK measures impose asset freezes and travel bans aimed at the same individuals and entity as were targeted by the EU. Additionally, the measures prohibit making funds or economic resources available to, or for the benefit of, the designated persons, directly or indirectly. The measures apply to individuals and entities within the UK and non-UK entities in respect of any business done – in whole or in part – within the UK as well as to the activities anywhere in the world of British nationals and legal entities incorporated in the UK (including their foreign branches).

The prohibition on dealing with the funds or economic resources of the five designated persons also extends to any legal entities that they own or control, directly or indirectly, even if the particular entity is not itself listed by the UK as a designated person.

The measures represent the first time in over 30 years that the UK has sought to sanction China for human rights abuses. In announcing the measures, Dominic Raab, stated that “[a]cting together sends the clearest possible signal that the international community is united in its condemnation of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and the need for Beijing to end its discriminatory and oppressive practices in the region.”

US Measures

The US Department of the Treasury announced the imposition of sanctions on Wang Junzheng and Chen Mingguo. Both individuals were designated as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) pursuant to Executive Order 13818 (Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption), which implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The property and interest in property of SDNs must be blocked (i.e., frozen) when within the United States or within the possession or control of a US person, and US persons are generally prohibited from dealing with SDNs. In announcing the sanctions, the Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, Andrea Gacki, stated, “Chinese authorities will continue to face consequences as long as atrocities occur in Xinjiang. Treasury is committed to promoting accountability for the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention and torture, against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.” The other three Chinese persons targeted by the EU, UK, and Canada already were subject to US sanctions.

Canadian Measures

Canadian authorities targeted the same four Chinese persons as the EU and UK pursuant to Canada’s Special Economic Measures (People’s Republic of China) Regulations. Persons in Canada, and Canadians outside of Canada, are prohibited from engaging in any activity related to any property of the listed persons or providing financial or related services to them.

Chinese Response

Shortly after the EU imposed its sanctions, China retaliated on the same day by announcing sanctions on ten Europeans and four institutions on the grounds that they “severely harmed China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.”

The sanctioned individuals are:

  • EU lawmakers Reinhard Butikofer, Michael Gahler, Raphaël Glucksmann, Ilhan Kyuchyuk and Miriam Lexmann;
  • Dutch lawmaker Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma;
  • Belgian lawmaker Samuel Cogolati;
  • Lithuania lawmaker Dovile Sakaliene;
  • German scholar Adrian Zenz; and
  • Swedish scholar Björn Jerdén.

The sanctioned institutions are:

  • the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union;
  • Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament;
  • the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany; and
  • the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark.

The sanctions measures imposed by china include travel bans on “concerned persons and their relatives” and bans on sanctioned persons – or associated companies and institutions – conducting business with China. As certain key terms such as “concerned” and “associated with” are undefined, there appears to be an element of ambiguity with respect to the scope of coverage of the bans.

Conclusions

This development represents the broadest example yet of democratic governments uniting to advance the protection of human rights in China through their coordinated use of sanctions. By acting in concert, the EU, UK, US and Canada have demonstrated unity in condemning Beijing’s repression of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the XUAR.

Taken in isolation, the measures announced by each country may have carried limited weight – aimed as they were at a limited number of individuals and entities. Their impact is significantly amplified, however, by the collective nature of the actions taken.

In response to this development, companies are encouraged to perform a health check of their operations in, or relating to, China to ensure that they are in compliance with the newly announced sanctions measures. It is particularly important for companies to map the ownership and control structures of their business partners through the performance of robust due diligence, as the EU, UK and US sanctions regimes can extend to entities owned or controlled by listed persons.

These developments have opened the way into unchartered territory, which we will be following closely.