The US, EU, UK and Canada have imposed sanctions on China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in a co-ordinated move that sparked an immediate retaliation from Beijing.

Travel bans and asset freezes have now been imposed on four officials and a security organisation over persecution and mass internments of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. The moves came ahead of the arrival of US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Brussels later on Monday.

The sanctions from the western powers cover high-level officials and entities in Xinjiang with direct connections to the internment camp system. These include the public security bureau and Wang Junzheng, the Communist party boss of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation that plays a central role in the region’s economy and security.

Blinken said the sanctions demonstrated “our ongoing commitment to working multilaterally to advance respect for human rights”.

The EU was the first western power to announce the sanctions and was hit with immediate retaliation from China’s foreign ministry, which imposed travel bans on 10 EU individuals and four entities. This included MEPs that have criticised Beijing’s policy, such as French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, German scholar Adrian Zenz and Swedish analyst Björn Jerdén.

Beijing said the EU measures were “based on nothing but lies and disinformation”, adding that they “severely” undermined its ties with the European bloc.

Beijing’s response in turn prompted a warning from members of the EU parliament that a market-access deal recently negotiated between the bloc and China was now in jeopardy.

The parliament’s large centre-left group, the S&D, said that the lifting of Chinese sanctions against MEPs was “a pre-condition” for work on ratifying the agreement to advance. 

The parliament’s committee on human rights will discuss the situation on Tuesday morning, a parliament official said. 

David Sassoli, European parliament president, said the counter-sanctions were “unacceptable” and would have “consequences”.

Another target of the western sanctions is Zhu Hailun, head of Xinjiang’s powerful Legal and Political Affairs commission from 2016 to 2019. He signed off on internal party documents, later leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that described how the “vocational and educational training centres” were designed like prisons.

Abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang represented “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”, said Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, adding that “human rights violations on this scale” could not be ignored. A growing body of evidence including survivor testimony and visits by British diplomats pointed to a “highly disturbing programme of oppression”.

“The international community will not turn a blind eye to such serious and systematic violations of human rights”, he said.

The EU, UK and Canadian lists do not include Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist party boss, the highest ranking official in the region. Chen, often considered the primary enforcer of hardline policies there, was targeted by US sanctions last July.

The new Xinjiang sanctions come on the heels of the first high-level meeting between the US and China since Joe Biden became president. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, met their Chinese counterparts in Alaska last week in a meeting that erupted into an extraordinary public spat.

The coordinated move also comes less than a week after the Biden administration imposed measures on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over a Chinese law that further erodes democracy in the former British territory.

It also highlights the European bloc’s uncomfortable efforts to maintain political and economic ties with Beijing while confronting it in other areas, such as its human rights record.

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