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The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new U.S. President Joe Biden.

Beijing hit back immediately with punitive measures against the EU that appeared broader, including European lawmakers, diplomats, institutes and families, and banning their businesses from trading with China.

Western governments are seeking to hold Beijing accountable for mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, where the United States says China is committing genocide.

China denies all accusations of abuse.

The coordinated effort appeared to be early fruit in a concerted U.S. diplomatic push to confront China in league with allies, a core element of Biden’s still evolving China policy.

Senior U.S. administration officials have said they are in daily contact with governments in Europe on China-related issues, something they call the “Europe roadshow.”

 “Amid growing international condemnation, (China) continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in statement ahead of meetings with EU and NATO ministers in Brussels this week.

Canada’s foreign ministry said: “Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities.”

Activists and U.N. rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations. China says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

The European Union was the first to impose sanctions on Monday on four Chinese officials, including a top security director, and one entity, a decision later mirrored by Britain and Canada.

Those also targeted by the United States were Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and another senior official in the region, Wang Junzheng.

The United States had already last year designated for sanctions the top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who was not targeted by the other Western allies on Monday, to avoid a larger diplomatic dispute, experts and diplomats said.

The foreign ministers of Canada and Britain issued a joint statement with Blinken, saying the three were united in demanding that Beijing end its “repressive practices” in Xinjiang.

Evidence of abuses was “overwhelming”, including satellite imagery, eyewitness testimony, and the Chinese government’s own documents, they said.

Separately, the foreign ministers of Australia and New Zealand issued a statement expressing “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang” and welcoming the measures announced by Canada, the European Union, Britain and the United States.

FIRST MAJOR EU SANCTIONS IN DECADES

The move by the U.S. and its allies follows two days of talks here between U.S. and Chinese officials last week, which laid bare the tensions between the world's two largest economies.

The EU accused Chen Mingguo of “arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief”.

Others hit with travel bans and asset freezes were: senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.

The EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing and Monday’s sanctions were the first significant measures since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, although Brussels targeted two computer hackers and a technology firm in 2020 as part of broader cyber sanctions.

The steps were praised by the United States. “A united transatlantic response sends a strong signal to those who violate or abuse international human rights,” Blinken said.

While mainly symbolic, the EU sanctions mark a hardening towards China, which Brussels regarded as a benign trading partner but now views as a systematic abuser of rights and freedoms.

Britain has repeatedly denounced torture, forced labour and sterilisations that it says are taking place on an “industrial scale” in Xinjiang and repeated its criticism of Beijing on Monday.

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