News

2021.04.06 08:00

‘We will not be intimidated.’ Despite China threats, Lithuania moves to recognise Uighur genocide

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2021.04.06 08:00

After the historical move by Brussels to impose sanctions on China, Beijing retaliated by targeting four Lithuanian politicians among over a dozen European diplomats and officials. Now, despite direct pressure on Lithuanian MPs, Vilnius is planning to recognise repressions against the Uighurs as genocide.

Lithuanian MP Dovilė Šakalienė was added to the Chinese sanctions list as one of the founders and leaders of the Interparliamentary Alliance on China, which brings together 100 MPs from 19 countries.

Together with other Lithuanian MPs, she has received “very strict, categorical and pressuring letters from the Chinese Embassy”.

According to Jakub Janda from the European Values Center for Security Policy in the Czech Republic, “China tracks closely who is exposing Chinese hostile behaviour in particular countries [and the] Chinese embassies [...] attack these individuals".

The letters came only after Šakalienė proposed to draft a resolution in the Lithuanian parliament on the persecution of Uighurs and other minorities in China.

Read more: Lithuanian MP blacklisted by China in retaliation for EU's sanctions

The US, Canada and the Netherlands, so far the only EU country, have described Beijing's actions against its citizens in Xinjiang province as genocide.

“The fact that Lithuania is joining countries that condemn serious human rights violations that are likely to match parts of the [United Nations] Genocide Convention has clearly affected China,” Šakalienė told LRT.lt.

In early March, a team of independent UN experts declared Chinese government in Xinjiang in violation of all 50 sections of the Genocide Convention and that it was “seeking to completely destroy” the country's Muslim group, adding that “this global power is the architect of this genocide”.

Read more: Three Lithuanian diplomats targeted by China's sanctions

According to Šakalienė, Beijing’s actions amount to genocide defined in the UN Convention and Lithuania is now coordinating and preparing its response.

“We see many systematic [violations], we probably have yet to learn about the cruelty and scale of these crimes,” she said. “The resolution would set out certain guidelines for communication with China: what is unacceptable to us and what principles we will stand for, certain red lines.”

The interparliamentary alliance is also calling for a comprehensive, independent international inquiry into China.

Beijing insists that “Xinjiang is a great example” of progress on human rights, and has invited foreign diplomats to visit the region. However, when EU ambassadors asked to meet with the imprisoned Uighur activist and Sakharov Prize winner Ilham Tohti, the planned visit was frozen.

“They are demanding a meeting with a criminal convicted under Chinese law,” Chinese Ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming commented on the request at the time. “I am very sorry, but this is unacceptable.”

According to Šakalienė, special hearings will be held in the Lithuanian parliament on April 22, where international experts and relatives of imprisoned people will talk about the repressions in Xinjiang.

“The parliaments of several countries will work together to make it very clear: we will not be intimidated. These are the fundamental values of the EU and we will defend them unanimously,” said Šakalienė.

Read more: Lithuania to update national security strategy due to China, Russia threats

Back in 2019, Lithuania was among the dozen EU members to sign a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning Beijing's actions.

However, Janda is skeptical about the possibility to recognise the Uighur genocide even at the EU level.

“Major countries like Germany, France, and Italy are afraid of Chinese economic punishment so they are trying to be soft and not to upset China,” he said. “[It may be called] a weak appeasement policy.”

Tit-for-tat sanctions

Previously, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has compared the EU's sanctions with Europe's imperialist policies in the 20th century.

“Today's China is no longer what it was 120 years ago. The Chinese people are not to be trifled with,” she said, urging the EU to rather focus on its own internal problems.

Beijing has condemned the European sanctions, with the Chinese ambassador to France going as far as calling a prominent French China analyst a “small-time hoodlum” and a “mad hyena”.

The EU reacted furiously, with the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell calling Beijing's retaliatory sanctions pathetic, and European Parliament President David Sassoli said Europe was not “a punching bag”, promising a response.

Chinese ambassadors were then summoned in Lithuania, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and other countries over “unnecessary escalation”.

The future of trade with China

When Donald Trump launched a trade war to pressure Beijing, the United States sought EU support. However, member states decided to seek “strategic autonomy” and their own place in the competition between the two world powers.

Meanwhile, analysts and politicians have warned of China’s various cooperation initiatives and investment promises that aim to divide the EU.

This is one of the main reasons why scepticism in Lithuania is growing towards China’s 17+1 format, where Beijing is engaging with Central and Eastern European nations.

Vilnius has recently claimed it would leave the initiative, but the Foreign Ministry later told 15min.lt news website that it wouldn't make an official announcement, because the 17+1 is not an official organisation, and the country would simple cease participating.

Estonian MEP and former commander of the country’s military, Riho Terras, has also called on Tallinn to follow Lithuania in shunning Beijing’s overtures. Lithuania is also planning to open economic representation in Taiwan, which has irked Beijing.

Read more: Can China punish Lithuania over support for Taiwan? – analysis

Read more: China slams Lithuania’s move to build ties with ‘Taiwan separatists’

In December last year, lobbied by France and Germany, the EU and China signed a major Investment Agreement. This move has been criticised by several member states, including Lithuania.

However, the agreement's future is now unclear because of the tit-for-tat sanctions between the EU and China. The EP still needs to ratify it and three of the parliament’s biggest parties have said they cannot do so until Beijing lifts sanctions on five MEPs.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Borrell also agreed to relaunch the EU-US forum to discuss a common approach to China.

“China's response to sanctions [...] has created a new atmosphere, indeed, a new situation,” Borrell said on March 22.

The agreement is primarily beneficial to EU’s business giants, according to experts. For China, however, it was an important symbolic victory. But now, Brussels can no longer ignore violations of the values it claims to champion.

The deal “will have a tough time in the EP because there are many MEPs who understand it as a lose-lose deal for the EU and its citizens. Chinese escalation makes it even worse”, he added.

Read more: ‘Washington minions’: Baltics have angered China