Sanctions and Counter-sanctions Between the West and China over Xinjiang

Sanctions and Counter-sanctions Between the West and China over Xinjiang

By Wesley Cong Cao

On March 22, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights issues in Xinjiang.[1] The “united transatlantic response,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under the new Biden administration.[2] Among the sanctioned were four senior officials who currently or previously held office in Xinjiang.[3]

Western governments sought to hold Beijing accountable for mass detentions of Muslim Uyghurs in northwestern China, where the United States says China is committing genocide.[4] Canada’s foreign ministry said, “Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities.”[5] Despite these accusations, U.S. State Department lawyers found insufficient evidence to prove genocide in China.[6]

China countered these allegations. On the same day that EU announced sanctions, China immediately issued counter-sanctions on the European Union.[7] Days later, counter-sanctions were also imposed on the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, respectively.[8] The sanctions prohibited entry into China, the Chinese foreign ministry said, adding that Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with the relevant individuals and prevented from having exchanges with the relevant entities.[9]

While the sanctions were mainly symbolic, responses from Chinese consumers were not. They quickly initiated a boycott against companies who supported the Western narrative, including Nike, Adidas, and H&M.[10] Amid the boycott, sales in the Adidas store on Tmall, the largest e-commerce platform in China, slumped by 78% in April from a year ago, and Nike’s dropped by 59%.[11]

With two sides making opposite claims, what is really going on in Xinjiang? The best way to find out might be to visit the region. China has invited diplomats from all over the world to visit Xinjiang.[12] Since the end of 2018, more than 1,200 people from over 100 countries and regions, including officials from international organizations, diplomats, journalists, and religious leaders, have visited Xinjiang.[13] A small group of EU diplomats visited Xinjiang in 2019,[14] but the European Union has reportedly delayed attending the most recent invite.[15] An anonymous U.S. official noted these visits were “Highly choreographed.”[16] Until a resolution, the sanctions and counter-sanctions will likely remain in place.


[1] Robin Emmott & David Brunnstrom, West Sanctions China over Xinjiang Abuses, Beijing Hits back at EU, Reuters (Mar. 22, 2021),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Colum Lynch, State Department Lawyers Concluded Insufficient Evidence to Prove Genocide in China, Foreign Policy (Feb. 19, 2021),

[7] Emmott & Brunnstrom, supra note 1.

[8] James Griffiths, China Sanctions UK Lawmakers and Entities in Retaliation for Xinjiang Measures, CNN News (Mar. 26, 2021),; China sanctions US, Canadian officials over Xinjiang, Associated Press (Mar. 27, 2021),

[9] Demetri Sevastopulo & Primrose Riordan, China Places Sanctions on US and Canadian Citizens, Financial Times (Mar. 27, 2021),

[10] Ben Westcott and Laura He, H&M and Nike Are Facing a Boycott in China over Xinjiang Cotton Statements, CNN News (Mar. 26, 2021),

[11] Jinshan Hong, Adidas, Nike Web Sales Plunge in China Amid Xinjiang Boycott, Bloomberg (May 6, 2021),

[12] Ben Blanchard, Wary of Xinjiang Backlash, China Invites Waves of Diplomats to Visit, Reuters (Feb. 21, 2019),

[13] Amber Wang, Beijing Takes Foreign Media to Xinjiang in Bid to Dispel Suspicion, South China Morning Post (Apr. 27, 2021),

[14] Ben Blanchard, U.S. official denounces ‘choreographed’ visits to China’s Xinjiang, Reuters (Mar. 23, 2019),

[15] China Accuses European Countries of Ulterior Motives, for Refusing to Visit Xinjiang, CGTN (Feb. 27, 2021),

[16] Blanchard, supra note 14.