China vowed retaliation and this week announced sanctions against European politicians and researchers, including the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, a prominent think tank.
Beijing followed up Friday by targeting British members of parliament including Tom Tugendhat, the foreign affairs committee head; Iain Duncan Smith, who co-chairs an international alliance of democratically elected lawmakers critical of China; as well as the Newcastle University anthropologist Joanne Smith Finley.
The sanctions list also included Essex Court Chambers. The high-profile London law firm was hired by activist groups including the World Uyghur Congress and published a legal opinion concluding there is a credible case that China’s Xinjiang policies amounted to genocide.
The British individuals and entities had “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” and they and their immediate family members would be banned from entering China or doing business with China, China’s Foreign Ministry said.
Several of those named were defiant. Finley, a Xinjiang scholar who has testified before the British Parliament, said she was targeted “for having a conscience.”
“Well, so be it,” she tweeted. “I have no regrets for speaking out, and I will not be silenced.”
David Alton, a member of the House of Lords, said the sanctions demonstrated the difference between an open society and one that committed crimes with impunity and sought to silence anyone who dared to speak out.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] assumes that trading with a state credibly accused of genocide will be more important to the UK than defending the values we cherish,” Alton said. “They are fundamentally mistaken.”
China’s sanctions are largely tit-for-tat, but they differ from those announced by Britain and Europe in one significant regard: They also target relatives. U.S. sanctions announced last year under the Global Magnitsky Act — such as the one against Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo — do punish officials’ immediate relatives, but British and European sanctions target only individuals.
Western sanctions have also not targeted Chinese research institutions.
The sanctions spat has driven a momentous week in China’s foreign relations, with far-reaching implications. It has thrown in doubt the future of an investment deal between two economic giants, China and Europe. It has shredded goodwill between China and the West, with Chinese diplomats and state media publicizing the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in the American South as examples of Western countries’ human rights records.
And it has inflamed nationalist passions in China, where a massive state-backed boycott campaign kicked off to force Western fashion retailers to reverse a pledge they made last year to avoid Xinjiang cotton, which foreign researchers say may be forcibly produced by Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group.
By Friday, H&M was taken down from China’s e-commerce websites. Physical store locations were blocked from searches on Baidu and Gaode maps, China's equivalent of Google and Apple maps. Shoppers using ride-hailing apps couldn’t input H&M stores as destinations.
On social media, the Communist Party’s youth wing, which helped kick-start the movement, targeted the Better Cotton Initiative consortium, which last year suspended its licensing of Xinjiang cotton amid concerns about forced labor. Other users distributed lists of the consortium’s participants brands, which also include Zara, Gap, Ikea and Target.
Meanwhile, the “I Support Xinjiang Cotton” hashtag sponsored by the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, had been viewed 430 million times. Chinese social media became inundated with videos of people angrily returning H&M clothes or pouring lighter fluid on flame-engulfed Nike high-tops.
China produces nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton, and Xinjiang accounts for about 90 percent of China’s output.
Chinese consumers periodically hold boycotts over perceived slights against their country. The campaigns are often whipped up by state media, but they rarely grow to such intense levels.
Chinese officials didn't hold back this week as they reached for acutely nationalistic notes: Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying compared the coordinated Western sanctions to imperial powers joining forces to attack the late Qing Dynasty and declared: “Today's China is not what it was 120 years ago.”
At a press briefing on Thursday, she held up a black-and-white 19th-century photo of enslaved people toiling in an American cotton field, and then a color photo of a tractor in Xinjiang under blue skies, an example of mechanized production that she said was responsible for 70 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton.
“There is never ‘forced labor’ in picking cotton in Xinjiang. It’s incredible that some enterprises believed in the rumor,” Hua said. “One thing is for sure: The Chinese people wouldn’t allow foreigners to reap benefits in China on the one hand and smear China on the other.”