Beijing targets British MPs for ‘gross interference’ over Xinjiang

China has imposed sanctions against UK politicians, lawyers and academics over criticism of its mass internment campaign in Xinjiang, the latest salvo in an escalating diplomatic spat between Beijing and western nations.

Beijing has 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.

On Friday, China announced measures against nine British citizens as well as 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 targeted included Conservative party MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Nus Ghani, Neil O’Brien and Tim Loughton, all of whom have raised concerns over alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang. China rejects all accusations of abuses in the region.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the individuals and groups of “gross interference in China’s affairs and seriously undermining China-UK relations”.

The move followed China’s imposition of sanctions against members of the European parliament this week.

Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, strongly criticised the decision on Friday. “It speaks volumes that, while the UK joins the international community in sanctioning those responsible for human rights abuses, the Chinese government sanctions its critics,” he said.

Raab added: “If Beijing wants to credibly rebut claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it should allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to verify the truth.”

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The diplomatic stand-off has worsened already frayed relations between China and western powers.

Former Conservative party leader Duncan Smith wrote on Twitter that it was his “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.

The Chinese 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 and associated travel ban would affect Collins’s duties. The government has not responded.

Essex Court Chambers, which removed the legal opinion on genocide from its website following the sanctions announcement, attempted to distance its members from the Xinjiang advice.

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“No other member of Essex Court Chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice and analysis contained in the legal opinion or its publication,” a statement from the chambers said. It added that its members were self-employed and a barristers’ chambers did not constitute a law firm.

Jo Smith Finley, an expert on China and Xinjiang at Newcastle University who was also targeted 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 governments on its companies or officials 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 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.


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