‘Countering sanctions with sanctions’: Where China’s confidence comes from

China is reacting to sanctions imposed by the West with sanctions of its own, with the latest salvo affecting US and Canadian individuals and entities. Zaobao correspondent Yu Zeyuan looks at the factors behind China’s increasing penchant for tit-for-tat sanctions.
People take part in a rally to encourage Canada and other countries as they consider labeling China's treatment of its Uighur population and Muslim minorities as genocide, outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, US, 19 February 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
People take part in a rally to encourage Canada and other countries as they consider labeling China's treatment of its Uighur population and Muslim minorities as genocide, outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, US, 19 February 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

​Following sanctions on the EU and the UK, on the evening of 27 March, China also announced sanctions on US and Canadian individuals and entities, suggesting China’s weapon of choice against its opponents.

China’s foreign ministry said on its website: “The United States (US) and Canada imposed unilateral sanctions on relevant individuals and entity (sic) in Xinjiang on March 22 based on rumors and disinformation. In response, the Chinese side decides (sic) to sanction Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Gayle Manchin, Vice Chair of the USCIRF Tony Perkins, Member of Parliament of Canada Michael Chong, and the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the House of Commons of Canada. The individuals concerned are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China, and Chinese citizens and institutions are prohibited from doing business with the relevant individuals and having exchanges with the relevant entity.”

This is China’s third announcement of sanctions in six days, and is a counter to the sanctions taken by the EU, the UK, the US, and Canada against China since 22 March over human rights issues in Xinjiang.

This includes sanctions on nine individuals and four entities from the UK — these individuals and their immediate family members are “prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China, their property in China will be frozen, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them.”

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A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre is photographed in Dabancheng, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 4 September 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Hitting adversaries where it hurts

China probably froze the property of these individuals and entities in China because it is aware of their interests and assets there. Public opinion in China has it that doing so cuts off some of their funding channels and hits them where it hurts, and that it is a huge deterrent to foreign entities and individuals that share in business privileges offered by China, even as they sling mud at China.

The USCIRF has always been critical of China when it comes to religion. Each July, the commission releases its annual report on international religious freedom, and makes policy recommendations to the US president, State Department, and Congress. In its 2019 report, the commission urged the US government and other countries to impose targeted sanctions on Chinese government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom. And this month, it released a statement supporting the sanctions taken by the US, Canada, the UK, and the EU against China.

This is also the second time that China has imposed sanctions on the US over the Xinjiang issue. In July last year, following the US’s announcement of sanctions on several senior Chinese officials, China retaliated by naming four US officials and lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio — whom Chinese media calls the “anti-China vanguard” — and Representative Chris Smith.

Canadian MP Michael Chong, who is half Chinese, was previously the youngest minister in the Canadian government. In February this year, he initiated a motion in Canada’s Senate that was passed, saying China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang region constitutes genocide, and calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing.

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Conservative Party Leadership candidate Michael Chong, addresses the crowd at the Conservative Party of Canada's final televised debate in Toronto, Ontario, 26 April 2017. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

‘Bundled sanctions’ likely to continue

Global Times, an English-language paper under the People’s Daily, quoted an academic saying that China’s latest round of sanctions has two characteristics: one, they are wider in scope; two, they are “bundled sanctions”.

According to China Foreign Affairs University professor Li Haidong, while China has imposed sanctions on government officials and congressmen in the past, it is now also sanctioning religious-rights officials. These officials are in fact political agitators who aid the US government’s efforts in implementing the policy of containment against China under the guise of religion. They have greater influence on US policies and society, and their attacks on China’s religious freedom pander to the American government on one hand while encouraging other countries to impose tough sanctions against China on the other. In this way, they play a significant role in the encirclement and suppression of China on Xinjiang-related issues.

At the same time, China decided to impose a bundled sanction on the US and Canada because Canada is perceived to lack independent thinking and has blindly followed the US in attacking China. “This was China’s first wave of punitive actions which may escalate in the future,” Prof Li noted.

A farmer picks cotton on a farm on the outskirts of Hami, Xinjiang, China, 3 November 2010. (Stringer/File Photo/Reuters)
A farmer picks cotton on a farm on the outskirts of Hami, Xinjiang, China, 3 November 2010. (Stringer/File Photo/Reuters)

Zhu Ying, deputy director of the National Human Rights Education and Training Base of Southwest University of Political Science and Law, analysed that if relevant countries, institutions and people continue to keep up this international farce over the Xinjiang issue, China could impose further sanctions on entities in related fields. For example, China could also target Switzerland-based cotton organisation Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which boycotts Xinjiang products.

Economic clout for sanctions

The sanctions war between China and Western countries demonstrates that China has gone past the stage of verbal protests and is now in tit-for-tat mode.

China’s confidence in imposing sanctions on its competitors comes first and foremost from its ever growing economic power. The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a big blow to the world economy. But China took the lead in rebounding from a negative growth rate to a positive one and the country has even set a growth target of above 6% for 2021. As China-US competition over Xinjiang is mainly on the political front, it has a limited impact on China’s economy.

... as the US and Western countries’ accusations of genocide and forced labour in Xinjiang seemed baseless, the public was irked and favoured the government's counterattacks against the West.

People commute during the morning rush hour in the financial district in Beijing, China, on 4 March 2021. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
People commute during the morning rush hour in the financial district in Beijing, China, on 4 March 2021. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

At the same time, ever since China-US relations completely turned sour in 2018, China has not been impacted as much as the outside world would have thought, and China’s ability to resist external pressure on the political, economic, and social fronts has significantly improved. In particular, because successful containment of the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the public’s confidence in Chinese officials, increased friction between China and Western countries no longer triggers widespread social anxiety.

Furthermore, as the US and Western countries’ accusations of genocide and forced labour in Xinjiang seemed baseless, the public was irked and favoured the government's counterattacks against the West.

The effect of China’s sanctions on Western countries is still unknown. But the series of sanctions that have been rolled out over the past couple of days indicate that China-US competition has entered a new phase of “countering sanctions with sanctions”.

Related: The fight that never ends: Why are China and the West now fighting over Xinjiang cotton? | Will the West boycott Beijing's Winter Olympics over Xinjiang? | Is there a genocide in Xinjiang? | Pick a side: China will counter US sanctions with lawsuits