China has imposed sanctions against UK politicians, entities, lawyers and academics over criticism of its mass internment campaign in Xinjiang, in the latest salvo of an escalating diplomatic spat between Beijing and western nations.
Beijing responded angrily to co-ordinated sanctions by the UK, EU, US and Canada this week targeting Communist party officials in the northwestern region, where more than 1m Uyghurs and other Muslims have been interned since 2017. The sanctions were the first such measures from Brussels against Beijing since the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
China, which rejects all accusations of rights abuses in Xinjiang, immediately retaliated with sanctions against members of the European parliament. The diplomatic stand-off has threatened to scupper ratification of a long-sought market access deal that is central to EU-China trade relations.
On Friday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced further measures against nine British citizens and four UK-based groups, freezing China-based assets and banning them and their family members from entering China, including Macau and Hong Kong, or doing business with Chinese individuals or entities.
The individuals the ministry accused of “gross interference in China’s affairs and seriously undermining China-UK relations” included Conservative party MPs Tom Tugendhat, Nus Ghani, Iain Duncan Smith, Neil O’Brien and Tim Loughton, all of whom have raised concerns over alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The ministry warned the UK “not to go further down the wrong path. Otherwise, China will resolutely take further action.”
China also imposed sanctions against the chambers of one of Hong Kong’s non-permanent judges. Lord Lawrence Collins joined Essex Court Chambers as an arbitrator member in 2012, according to the chambers’ website.
Collins is one of the foreign judges who occasionally travel to the Chinese territory to sit on its Court of Final Appeal. The judges’ presence is seen as a vital stamp of approval of Hong Kong’s legal system.
In February, four barristers at Essex Court Chambers released a legal opinion that concluded there was a “credible case that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population in . . . Xinjiang . . . amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.
The Financial Times asked the Hong Kong government whether the sanctions, under which “relevant persons” are banned from travelling to China and Hong Kong, would affect Collins’s duties. The government has not responded. Essex Court Chambers has also not responded to a request for comment.
The Conservative party Human Rights Commission, which was also targeted by Beijing on Friday, called the sanctions a “recognition of its tireless work documenting the horrific human rights crisis in China”.
Former Conservative party leader Duncan Smith wrote on Twitter that it was a “duty” to highlight human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government.
“Those of us who live free lives under the rule of law must speak for those who have no voice. If that brings the anger of China down on me, I’ll wear that badge of honour”, he said.
Jo Smith Finley, an expert on China and Xinjiang at Newcastle University who was also named by Beijing, wrote on Twitter: “Well, so be it. I have no regrets for speaking out, and I will not be silenced.”
Beijing has grown more willing in recent years to respond in kind to restrictions imposed by other nations on its companies or politicians over repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang or national security concerns.
China has particularly taken umbrage at efforts by western capitals to push for accountability over Beijing’s campaign of blanket surveillance, mass incarceration and forced assimilation in Xinjiang, which some politicians have said amounts to “genocide”.
Beijing’s countermeasures have also moved beyond the mostly symbolic sanctions to target multinational companies. Since Wednesday, western apparel brands including H&M and Nike have faced boycotts from nationalist Chinese consumers after historic statements expressing concern about reports of forced labour in Xinjiang were circulated online.
UK companies are under pressure to prove they are abiding by updated modern slavery legislation after a British parliamentary committee concluded this month that many were displaying “wilful blindness” to the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London