China is refusing to let EU diplomats conduct a “meaningful” visit to its Xinjiang province, while claiming new EU sanctions over its persecution of the Uighur minority there are based on “lies”.
The fact-finding trip, by EU ambassadors in Beijing, has been under discussion since 2019 and was put on hold last year due to the pandemic.
But now, with the virus abating, China is refusing to let them go because they want to meet a prize-winning Uighur activist who is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism.
Europe’s “expectations include … access to specific locations, and the terms of access to those locations, as well as a visit with European Parliament Sakharov prize recipient Ilham Tohti,” an EU spokesperson told EUobserver on Tuesday (16 March).
“EU ambassadors would be visiting – should the conditions for a meaningful visit be acceptable to us – without any presumptions or partiality, but precisely to establish the facts, based on objective, reliable information emanating from relevant credible sources,” the spokesperson added.
The impasse over the Xinjiang trip comes as EU countries prepare to impose their first-ever sanctions on China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
The visa-bans and asset-freezes on four Chinese officials and one entity, to be agreed next week, are tied to Uighur abuses.
These include systematic rape and forced sterilisation of Uighur women, according to investigations by leading media and human rights organisations, such as the BBC and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
They also include use of Uighur women’s hair to make wigs for export, forced labour, and cultural brainwashing in mass-scale internment camps.
“As regards the situation in Xinjiang, we have spoken out clearly and repeatedly on the situation of Uighurs, expressing grave concerns about political re-education camps, surveillance, and restrictions on freedom of religion and belief,” the EU spokesperson said.
But for Zhang Ming, China’s EU ambassador, all that was just “lies … disinformation … [and] fake news” spread by “China-haters”.
“Sanctions based on lies could be interpreted as deliberately undermining China’s security and development interests,” Zhang told a video-conference held by the European Policy Centre, a think-tank in Brussels, also on Tuesday.
“We ask the EU side to think twice. If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down,” he said.
“Countries like the US, the UK, and France have established deradicalisation centres or correction centres [for Islamist terrorists]. China’s measures are not entirely different from theirs,” the Chinese ambassador also claimed.
“We have agreed all the requirements except one,” Zhang added, on the EU-Xinjiang trip.
“They [the EU ambassadors] insist to have a meeting with one criminal [Tohti] imprisoned and convicted under Chinese law. This is unacceptable. I’m so sorry,” he said.
EU business treaty
EU countries, last year, agreed a new investment treaty with China despite what many independent observers have called the “genocide” in Xinjiang.
This still has to be ratified by the European Parliament to enter into life.
Opposition is growing among MEPs due to the Uighur abuses, as well as China’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
But for Zhang, any criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong was also “meddling” in China’s “internal affairs”.
The diplomat claimed Europe was no different because the EU parliament recently lifted the immunity of a handful of pro-independence MEPs from the Spanish region of Catalonia.
He also accused the EU of “double standards” on Hong-Kong protesters, because Europe had criticised the violent mob that stormed the Capitol in January to try to overturn democratic elections in the US.
“I take the concerns of some MEPs seriously and talk to them frankly,” Zhang said of his EU diplomacy.
But he noted that EU “business leaders” and top European Commission officials were happy to decouple trade from human rights the same way Beijing wanted to.
“The investment agreement is not a package solution to all the differences between China and the EU, still less a tool to exert pressure,” Zhang said.
“Economic issues should not be politicised … should not be disrupted,” he noted.
Zooming out into the geopolitical arena, EU Council president Charles Michel recently accused China of abusing coronavirus vaccine exports to increase influence in poor countries.
The US has also urged Europe to put the brakes on its China-trade love-affair for the sake of transatlantic relations amid mounting global rivalry.
But Zhang waved aside Michel’s concerns the same way he did those on Uighurs and Hong Kong.
When foreign leaders greeted Chinese vaccine shipments at their airports amid great fanfare, this was a “natural expression of emotions”, rather than a quid pro quo, he said.
The US was trying to “build circles” around China the same way it tried to contain Russian power in the Cold War, he noted.
“The EU should not form an anti-China front with the US,” he said.
There were “sensible voices” in Europe calling for EU “strategic autonomy” from America and “hopefully the EU will act in this spirit,” Zhang added on Tuesday.
But for at least one voice, the ambassador’s claims on Uighurs, Hong Kong, and beyond were about as convincing as “flat-earther nonsense”.
“Human rights groups are the true ‘China lovers’, by calling on the abusive authorities to respect the fundamental rights of all people in China,” Andrew Stroehlein, an HRW spokesman, told EUobserver.
“The government in Beijing, which is committing grave abuses against its own people, absurdly calls them ‘China haters’. If you love your people, respect their rights,” Stroehlein said.