As diplomatic crisis deepens, Canada slaps sanctions on four Chinese officials over human rights abuses

VANCOUVER— In a diplomatic move not seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre, Canada imposed sanctions on four high-ranking Chinese officials over what Ottawa describes as “gross and systematic human rights violations” against Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region .

It is the first time Canada has slapped sanctions on China since June 1989, in the aftermath of the military siege on student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It is also the first time ever that Canada has targeted sanctions against specific individuals in China, a federal official confirmed.

The sanctions were imposed in lockstep with the United Kingdom, European Union, and the United States — a level of co-ordination that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said is meant to pressure Beijing to stop the repression documented and reported in the region of western China.

They also come in the wake of the trials of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, on espionage charges in China. The men have been in custody in that country since December 2018.

But Trudeau denied the sanctions were linked to what the federal government continues to condemn as the ongoing “arbitrary detention” of the men, who faced secret trials on spying charges in China in recent days.

“We are with our international allies in being very preoccupied with the situation that Muslim minorities are facing in western China,” Trudeau said in French from Trois-Rivières, Que. Monday.

He said the new sanctions reflect Canada’s “grave concern” with the “human rights abuses taking place” in Xinjiang.

The targeted individuals are Zhu Hailun, deputy Community party secretary for the Xinjiang Region; Wang Junzheng, a Communist party secretary with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps; Xinjiang police chief Wang Mingshan; and Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

In a statement released Monday, Global Affairs Canada said the sanctions mean “a prohibition on any transaction (effectively, an asset freeze) by prohibiting persons in Canada, and Canadians outside Canada, from engaging in any activity related to any property of these individuals or providing financial or related services to them.” The four officials are also barred from entering Canada.

Ottawa also imposed sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.

In announcing the move, the Canadian government cited “mounting evidence” China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorites for political re-education, and has engaged in torture and forced labour. In a release, Global Affairs Canada also said there are “credible reports of systemic rape and forced sterilization” in Xinjiang, and called on China to give “meaningful, unfettered access” to experts to observe and report on the situation.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further in his statement on the sanctions, labelling the Chinese repression “genocide” and calling for the release of “all those arbitrarily held in internment camps and detention facilities.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not comment on the sanctions when asked by the Star. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported that China had already retaliated with sanctions against EU officials on Monday.

China has previously denied it is violating human rights and said actions taken in Xinjiang are meant to counter extremism in the region, referring to the internment camps as vocational training facilities.

Mehmet Tohti of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project said the measures don’t go far enough, referring to them as a step in the right direction. Tohti said Canada’s pattern of appeasing Beijing made him fear no action would ever be taken.

“I was worried because if you look at Canada’s China policy it’s always precautionary, always calculated steps, always Canada acting exactly the way the Chinese government wants Canada to act, without even raising their voice on crucial issues,” he said. “I think this is the first time they’ve broken that vicious cycle.”

But there’s a noticeable absence of the Chinese official pegged as the mastermind of China’s repression of Uyghurs, he said.

Chen Quanguo has been labelled the “architect” of Beijing’s security strategy in Xinjiang by scholars and journalists. Chen is the Communist Party Secretary for Xinjiang, making him the top official in the region.

Though Chen was put on a sanctions list by the U.S. last July, he was not named by Canada or the European Union in today’s announcements, according to Reuters. Tohti said excluding Chen from the list sends a mixed message about how serious Canada is on the issue.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Erin O’Toole issued a statement late Monday saying while the Conservatives are “encouraged” by Ottawa’s decision to work with Canada’s allies to impose sanctions, the government must go further and recognize the genocide in the region.

“Now, Conservatives are once again calling on the Trudeau government to follow Parliament’s lead by recognizing the Uyghur genocide, working to encourage other allies to do the same, and by putting in place new, more effective measures to ban imports produced with forced Uyghur labour,” O’Toole’s statement reads.

It added Trudeau must “abandon his naive approach” to the Chinese government, in light of the ongoing detentions of Kovrig and Spavor.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau was not available for an interview with the Star on Monday, his office said.

Garneau’s office then forwarded questions about the sanctions to the department of Global Affairs, which did not respond before deadline.