On 21st January, 2021, within moments of Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, China announced imposition of sanctions against senior officials from the outgoing Trump administration. These sanctions have been imposed against 28 individuals (and their families by extension) who have allegedly ‘seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such US moves on China-related issues.’ Following the sanctions, China also lashed against EU for a resolution passed by European Parliament against Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong, deriding them to “face up to the reality that Hong Kong has returned to China”.
Retaliatory sanctions against individuals from US has a prior precedence, as similar restrictions were placed by China on US citizens in July and August, 2020, largely in response to Washington’s imposition of sanctions Chinese officials accused of curtailing political freedoms in Hong Kong. According to Bloomberg, the latest iteration brings the total number of US citizens sanctioned by China to 44.
Several reports have suggested that the sanction by China is not a ‘tit-for-tat’ move since it is not in retaliation to any immediate step by the US. This is despite the fact that the sanctions came almost immediately after Mike Pompeo, before his exit had warned China against keeping the pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong detained, talked about regarding Uyghurs being subjected to genocide by China, and even asserted that US will stop the ‘self -imposed restrictions’ on contact between itself and Taiwan, which has been another source of consternation for China. Mike Pompeo is one of the 28 sanctioned individuals.
China has specified that the individuals on sanctioned list and their family will not be allowed to enter the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China. It also specified that any organization associated with them will be restricted from doing business with the country, in a bid to force hand of entities which may have business with China to not employ these outgoing officials. According to China, such restrictions make the sanction ‘substantive’, as it will ensure that people who have said ‘nasty lies’ about China will not benefit from the country. However, Brian O’Toole, a sanctions expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, disagrees. He believes that these are more political statements, and that China will ‘default to more of a case-by-case application than a well-defined restriction’. Another report from The Diplomat also points out that staunchly Anti-China US senators and officials are ‘unlikely to employ Chinese banks, or to visit China in the immediate future.’ It is also to be noted that a previous set of sanctions from US had also penalized conducting of business with China, and the very lawmakers who passed it are unlikely to defy it themselves.
An aspect of the recent set of sanctions that has drawn attention is when it was announced. According to National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne, timing the sanctions on day of inauguration of Biden’s presidency also indicates that China is attempting to play to the partisan divide in US. The statement on sanctions made by Chinese Foreign Ministry also seemed to imply them to be a warning for newer administration about not interfering in China’s matters, especially in case of Taiwan.
Yet, the act seemed to have opposite results; the Biden administration has called the move “unproductive and cynical” and urged Americans from both parties to condemn it. China has been a subject that the two major US parties have had a largely bipartisan view on. New Secretary of State Antony Biden had even openly agreed with Trump administration’s assessment that China was openly conducting mass genocide in Xinjiang. Biden had also invited de facto ambassador of Taiwan for his government’s inauguration, and both Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had given their support to Taiwan during their confirmation hearings, signalling for direct relations with the island (contrary to One China policy).
It is also to be noted that the US sanctions, that China has vilified these lawmakers for, are not merely an invention of the Trump Government. The detention of over a million Muslims in re-education camps has been verified by a United Nations panel, and genocide of Uyghur has been detailed by the annual report of Human Rights Watch. The violation of rule of law in Hong Kong, arrest and detention of Pro-Democracy politicians and activists, as well as rampant brutality with which civilians and journalists were treated in the city had also been highlighted by the aforementioned report. In this context, Chinese sanctions against the outgoing US officials seems to be inspired less by needs of policy, and more as an effort to corral, and as Republican member of US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul puts it, ‘silence and intimidate officials who had exposed abuses’ by China.