China’s outspoken critics close ranks in the face of sanctions from Beijing - SOAS China Institute

//China’s outspoken critics close ranks in the face of sanctions from Beijing

China’s outspoken critics close ranks in the face of sanctions from Beijing

Protest in Hong Kong, October 2019. – Photo credit: Etan Liam (Flickr)

By Duncan Bartlett | 09 April 2021

China is taking revenge against prominent figures in Britain, the EU and other countries who have criticised its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. As a result, their messages have been amplified in the press. Duncan Bartlett considers the diplomatic implications and asks if outside pressure impacts Chinese policy.

The Chinese Communist Party did not expect the issue of Hong Kong to take up much time during the meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) which took place in Beijing early March.


Most of the 3,000 or so delegates who were gathered in the Great Hall of the People had travelled from other provinces in the People’s Republic, some of them thousands of miles from the capital.


Few were particularly interested in the unusual politics and history of a port in the deep, distant south. They were more concerned about the development of their own regions.


The NPC members were assured that a law urging patriotism and loyalty in Hong Kong was in accord with China’s values. It seemed relatively uncontroversial. The legislation was passed by a margin of 2,895 votes There was one abstention.


International outcry


The international response was swift and angry. China’s leaders could be forgiven if they were rather taken aback by the force of feeling.


Even as the NPC continued its meeting in Beijing, the United States sanctioned 24 Chinese officials, including a Politburo member, Wang Chen.


The sanctions aim to sever ties between the listed individuals and US financial institutions. They also prevent people from using banks and companies which trade with America.


Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, who was previously sanctioned by the US, claims that she has been cut off from the international banking system, forcing her to stockpile cash in her office.


The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said that the sanctions on China were in response to “deep concern with the decision by the National People’s Congress to unilaterally undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system.”


Xinjiang sanctions


Further trouble for China was brewing. Less than a fortnight after the conclusion of the NPC meeting in Beijing, the European Union moved to freeze the assets of more senior Chinese officials and politicians. This time the trigger was not Hong Kong, but China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.


It was the first time the bloc had sanctioned China for human rights violations since the 1989 Tiananmen student protests.


The US, the UK and Canada joined the EU in a united response. In a joint statement, their foreign ministers said they “are united in deep and ongoing concern regarding China’s human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang.”


In retaliation, China sanctioned politicians, campaigners and scholars from the EU, Britain, Canada and the United States, prohibiting them from traveling to mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau, or from doing business with the PRC.


The list included German researcher Adrian Zenz, whose documentation of the situation in Xinjiang has been used by campaigners. Germany’s  government is now becoming less supportive of China in international forums. An investment deal between China and the EU, which was reached in December 2020, at Germany’s behest, now looks in jeopardy.


There has also been an impact on academia.


China has sanctioned a scholar from Newcastle University, Joanne Smith Finley, who has written articles about Xinjiang and the Uighurs.


In response, more than 400 academics, including some from SOAS, signed a letter to The Times stating that the action against Dr Smith Finley “is a threat to universities’ core principle of academic freedom.”


Outside influence


Yet the question remains: to what extent can the outside world influence the way China handles the governance of Hong Kong or the treatment of the people who live in Xinjiang?


Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, recently discussed this topic with Jessie Lau, a writer and journalist from Hong Kong. Their conversation was published in the New Statesman.


Professor Tsang said that sanctions and measures taken against Hong Kong officials will have “practically no effect on policies” because orders come from Beijing and if they come from Chinese president Xi Jinping they “cannot be changed”.


“You also have to think about whether it will harm people in Hong Kong who are interested in sustaining rights and freedoms for as long as possible,” Professor Tsang said, giving the status of the city’s independent judiciary as one example.


While Professor Tsang praised citizenship-pathway offers made by the UK and other governments, he noted that they do little to help those who remain in the city: “Sanctuary schemes give people a way out, but they can’t actually change the politics in Hong Kong.


“It’s easy to openly condemn China on Hong Kong policy. It’s good political theatre,” he said. “But then what?”


Blaming outsiders


Foreign politicians and organisations which criticise China face a further dilemma. China often presents them as “outside forces”, which are interfering in its own affairs. The aim is to make their campaigns counter-productive by portraying them as meddlers in the domestic matters of a sovereign nation.


In Hong Kong for example, when western governments have sought to show solidarity with pro-democracy campaigners, China has claimed that this shows neo-colonial powers are conspiring with pro-independence campaigners to pull the city away from the rest of the country.


But as the diplomatic events of the past month have shown, many nations, institutions and individuals are prepared to criticise China over Hong Kong and other issues, even if it leads to them being sanctioned by its government.

Duncan Bartlett is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, and hosts the Institute’s weekly podcast, China In ContextHe is also the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and is a former BBC presenter.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


Originally published by Asian Affairs magazine on 22 March 2021, with additional material from the New Statesman.