When the EU imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials in March 2021, it was no big surprise that China swiftly levied sanctions against a group of MEPs in a “tit-for-tat" retaliatory action.
A year later, we caught up with some of the MEPs to learn what it’s like to be sanctioned by the global superpower, how sanctions have hindered (or benefitted) them, and how they have adjusted to this new status.
China’s sanctions followed the restrictive measures placed by the EU on four Chinese officials accused of being involved in human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority, who mainly live in China’s western Xinjiang region.
The official statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the targeted individuals “severely harm China's sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation”. Those on the sanctioned list, as well as their “associated companies”, are banned from entering Chinese territories and are restricted from doing business there.
Tim Rühlig, a research fellow focusing on China at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says that the move by China reflects the country’s shift towards a more combative style of diplomacy, sometimes referred to as “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
“China has, in recent years, and specifically in the first months of the pandemic, sent more aggressive diplomats to European capitals, essentially pushing back against anything in the public debate that would not be in conformity with the official Chinese narrative”, said Rühlig.
The vagueness of the sanctions is also a typical Chinese strategy, according to Rühlig: “China is, I think, consciously keeping this really vague, both to be able to deescalate but also to escalate the interpretation of the sanctions at any time without needing to issue a new statement.”
We spoke to three of the sanctioned MEPs: Reinhard Bütikofer (DE, Greens/EFA), Chair of the European Parliament's China Delegation; Miriam Lexmann (SK, EPP), co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China; and Ilhan Kyuchyuk (BG, RN), co-president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party.
Ms Lexmann’s responses were sent via email. The other responses, which were gathered through conversations over videocall, have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Article continues below.
Inbar Preiss: Why do you think you were targeted by the sanctions?
Reinhard Bütikofer: You shouldn’t be surprised that I was included in the list of sanctioned individuals, because I had been very outspoken on China’s policy. There had been articles criticising me heavily in some of the more nationalist media in China before.
I think I found out from an article in the [the daily tabloid supported by Chinese Communist Party] Global Times that I was to be included in the list of people that would be sanctioned. The Chinese government has never communicated directly to me at all. Nor have they indicated whether there is at all a legal basis or what that legal basis would be.
It’s an interesting signal that they would sanction their purportedly prime interlocuter in the European Parliament. It signals, how I would read it, that they are not willing to engage in a dialogue unless they can impose the conditions for what can be discussed and what should not be addressed.
I would say being targeted by these sanctions gave me even more leverage. More people have been interested in what I have to say since the Chinese have, in a way, pressured me with a blessing of their sanctions - Reinhard Bütikofer
Basically, by sanctioning me they stressed the point they will accept an interlocutor only if the interlocutor is willing to go by the Chinese definition of what would make sense as topics for conversation, and obviously that shows just too little respect for the European Parliament. That’s why I’m not just taking that personally. I think it is a sanction against the European Parliament.
Miriam Lexmann: I don’t know exactly how the Chinese made the choice about who was to be sanctioned, because there are other members who are focusing on China and who are also vocal on the human rights situation in across mainland China and Hong Kong.
A journalist called me before the names of sanctioned entities were published and asked if I expected I’ll be on the list. I honestly had no idea and I didn’t expect it since 2020 was my very first year as a member of European Parliament and, in fact, in elected office.
I co-founded an informal cross-party Hong Kong Watch Group in the European Parliament, and was involved from the onset in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) which is a global alliance of democratic policy-maker. We focus on how to strategically approach the challenges and threats the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) represents, and how to harmonise the policies and approaches in politics across the democratic world vis-a-vis China.
Ilhan Kyuchyuk: My guess is that my activities related to Uyghurs and the Sakharov Prize are the cause for the sanctions. I also created [Parliament’s 'Friends of Uyghurs’] Group, for which I was one of the co-chairs, to support the cultural traditions of the Uyghurs in the European Parliament.
I was warned a couple of times by [officials from the Chinese embassy], because my country, Bulgaria, has a relatively good relationship with CCP, starting from our communist regime times. They didn't use the word ‘sanctions’, but they came to my office trying to tell me that I should stop. They were saying that I'm not corresponding to reality or that I'm manipulating facts.
My only focus was how to make the case of Uyghurs better known, and for Ilham Tohti to get the Sakharov prize - Ilhan Kyuchyuk
We have a similar historical background to the Uyghurs in my country: 30 years ago, when [the communist regime in Bulgaria] oppressed my minority, the Turkish minority, we were forced to leave our country to Turkey. When I became an MEP, [Enver Can, Chairman of the Ilham Tohti Initiative] came to my office and said: ‘I know what the communist regime did to your ethnic group in Bulgaria. But thankfully today you, Ilhan, became an MEP, and through you we have a voice to support your brother of destiny, Ilham Tohti.’ That is how I was engaged.
IP: How have the sanctions affected your life?
RB: I’ve seen a great deal of solidarity from the colleagues and even colleagues that would certainly not sign on to all my opinions about China. I’m very strongly supported. I would say [being targeted by these sanctions] even gave me more leverage, frankly. More people have been interested in what I have to say since the Chinese have, in a way, pressured me with a blessing of their sanctions. It’s become almost a badge of honour.
There have been a number of online events that I had been invited to where, when it became apparent that I would be a discussant, all of a sudden, all the Chinese participants that had accepted the invitation vanished at the last moment. So there seems to be a certain no contact policy.
But that has changed more recently. It’s not completely incommunicado.
The main effect on my life is that I decided to refrain from calling friends and interlocuters in China because I didn’t want to risk those people of being accused of collaborating with somebody who is supposedly, according to Chinese propaganda, anti-China.
IK: We took it as a badge of honour because we did it for one purpose, to support in the case of Uyghurs in East Turkestan. I'm satisfied that the sanctions gave more attention [to their plight]. But also, I'm extremely thankful to my new friends with whom I continue cooperating on the issues relating to China. Most of them are in US, like the daughter of Ilham Tohti and others. They keep me posted about the developments. The human rights situation is dire. It is a brutal crackdown against the Uyghurs.
Some people say, ‘Yes that's great, it’s good that you are supporting them, and we support you’, and probably others are a bit more worried because China is a global power.
I never did it for my own glory, I never wanted that. My only focus was how to make the case of the Uyghurs better known, and for Ilham Tohti to get the Sakharov prize. He was the one always contributing with his professional career for a good relationship between the Uyghurs and the Chinese. He wanted to create this concept of living together. The concept of togetherness which is very important for my own life and political understanding.
I think this is a burden for people around me, because they cannot know if they’ll be targeted or not. It is kind of a psychological pressure - Miriam Lexmann
ML: Because of their vagueness, the sanctions do not only impact myself but extend to my family and people associated with me. However, we don’t know legally their full extent and impact, and the Chinese side never sought to clarify this. So, I think this is a burden for people around me, because they cannot know if they’ll be targeted or not. It is kind of a psychological pressure.
Also, according to the national security law that the CCP introduced, my engagement with people from China or Hong Kong might pose a serious risk or a threat to them. As a result, I must be more careful how I communicate with these people so that they are not put at risk.
Whether I’m on a sanctions list should not play a role in determining my activities. The most important for me as a politician is to behave and propose policies which are in accordance with the values I uphold, especially, the protection of human dignity which totalitarian regimes like the CCP seek to destroy.