By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union imposed sanctions on Monday on four Chinese officials, including a top security director, for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, to which Beijing responded by blacklisting Europeans in a rare escalation of diplomatic tensions.
Unlike the United States, the EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing, but a decision to impose the first significant sanctions since an EU arms embargo in 1989 has inflamed tensions.
Accused of mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, those targeted by the EU included Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The EU said Chen was responsible for "serious human rights violations."
In its Official Journal, the EU accused Chen of "arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim ethnic minorities, as well as systematic violations of their freedom of religion or belief".
Others hit with travel bans and asset freezes were: senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau.
However, the EU avoided sanctioning the top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who is blacklisted by the United States, suggesting that European governments sought a softer approach.
China denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
Beijing immediately retaliated, saying it decided to impose sanctions on 10 EU individuals, including European lawmakers, the EU's main foreign policy decision-making body known as the Political and Security Committee and two leading think-tanks.
German politician Reinhard Butikofer, who chairs the European Parliament's delegation to China, was among the most high profile figures to be hit. The non-profit Alliance of Democracies Foundation, founded by former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was also blacklisted, according to a statement by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Restricted from entering China or doing business with it, Beijing accused of them seriously harming the country's sovereignty and interests over Xinjiang. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the EU to "correct its mistake" and not to interfere in China's internal affairs.
While mainly symbolic, the EU sanctions mark a significant hardening in the bloc's policy towards China, which Brussels long regarded as a benign trading partner but now views as a systematic abuser of basic rights and freedoms.
The EU had not sanctioned China significantly since it imposed an arms embargo in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy crackdown, although it targeted two computer hackers and a technology firm in 2020 as part of broader cyber sanctions. The arms embargo is still in place.
All 27 EU governments agreed to the punitive measures, but Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, called them "harmful" and "pointless", reflecting the bloc's divisions on how to deal with China's rise and to protect business interests.
China is the EU's second-largest trading partner after the United States and Beijing is both a big market and a major investor which has courted poorer and central European states.
But the EU, which sees itself as a champion of human rights, is deeply worried about the fate of the Uighurs.
Activists and U.N. rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims are being detained in camps in the remote western region of Xinjiang. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations.
The EU's sanctions affect officials seen to have designed and enforced the detentions in Xinjiang and come after the Dutch parliament followed Canada and the United States in calling China's treatment of Uighurs genocide, which China rejects.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott, Editing by William Maclean)