China looked to Europe as an amicable partner as the continent’s leaders resisted being drawn into President Donald Trump’s conflicts with Beijing over trade, technology and human rights.
On Monday, that image shattered when the European Union (EU) joined Washington, Britain and Canada in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over accusations they abused ethnic minorities. Beijing retaliated by announcing it would penalize four European legislators and a German researcher.
The timing is symbolic. It highlights U.S.-European cooperation two months after Trump, who disdained the trans-Atlantic alliance, was succeeded by President Joe Biden, who wants to form an alliance to confront China.
The penalties are the EU’s first against China since Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
“What they have done is a slander and an affront to the reputation and dignity of the Chinese people,” said a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying. “They will pay the price for their folly and arrogance.”
Europe’s move follows mounting grievances about trade and human rights that soured attitudes toward China. Earlier proposals to criticize China’s human rights record were vetoed by Hungary and Greece, possibly to avoid disrupting trade and investment ties.
More broadly, the conflict reflects a decline in China’s relations with the West and Asian neighbors including India as President Xi Jinping’s government pursues more assertive trade and strategic policies.
The sanctions apply to four senior officials in Xinjiang, the northwestern territory where exiles and human rights groups say more than 1 million people have been forced into detention camps. The officials are barred from traveling in Europe. The EU also froze any European assets of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, a paramilitary-style organization that dominates the region’s economy.
The Chinese foreign ministry gave no details of penalties against Europeans. But previous sanctions on foreign officials barred them from China, Hong Kong or Macau. Companies associated with them are barred from doing business in China.
The impact is limited, but the public spat is a diplomatic setback for Beijing.
On Tuesday, the Chinese foreign minister joined his Russian counterpart in denouncing the coordinated sanctions. They rejected criticism of their authoritarian systems and accused the United States of interfering in other countries.