China responded with threats of retaliation after the US announced visa refusals and withholding of assets for three Chinese officials, including Communist Party Xinjiang chief Chen Quanguo.
The US has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, including a member of the country's powerful Politburo, accusing them of serious human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority, prompting China to threaten tit-for-tat measures.
The Trump administration's sanctions, which include the Xinjiang region's Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, were announced on Thursday amid already-high tensions between Washington and Beijing over China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its tightened grip on Hong Kong.
China said it will impose retaliatory measures on US institutions and individuals who "behave badly" on Xinjiang-related issues.
"The US actions seriously interfere in China's internal affairs, seriously violate the basic norms of international relations, and seriously damage China-US relations," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday in a briefing, without giving details about the "reciprocal measures".
Who is sanctioned?
"The US calls upon the world to stand against the CCP’s acts against its own minority communities in Xinjiang, including mass arbitrary detention, forced labour, religious persecution, and forced birth control and sterilisation," a White House official said a day earlier.
China denies mistreatment of the minority group and says the camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
The sanctions are imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, a federal law that allows the US government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any US assets, US travel bans and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.
The sanctions were imposed on Chen, a member of China's powerful politburo; Zhu Hailun, a former deputy party secretary of the region; Wang Mingshan, the director and Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; and former party secretary of the bureau Huo Liujun.
Today, I designated three senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang for gross violations of human rights, making them and their immediate family members ineligible for entry into the United States.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 9, 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he was also imposing further visa restrictions on Chen, Zhu, and Wang, barring them and their immediate family from the United States.
The US Treasury Department said that Chen, the highest-ranking Chinese official to be hit with sanctions, implemented "a comprehensive surveillance, detention and indoctrination program in Xinjiang, targeting Uighurs and other ethnic minorities" through the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.
Repression of minorities
China’s officially atheist Communist government at first denied the existence of the internment camps in Xinjiang, but now says they are vocational training facilities aimed at countering Muslim radicalism and separatist tendencies.
China says Xinjiang has long been its territory and claims it is bringing prosperity and development to the vast, resource-rich region. Many among Xinjiang’s native ethnic groups say they are being denied economic options in favour of migrants from elsewhere in China and that their Muslim faith and unique culture and language are being gradually eradicated.
Last December, Xinjiang authorities announced that the camps had closed and all the detainees had “graduated”, a claim difficult to corroborate independently given tight surveillance and restrictions on reporting in the region. Some Uighurs and Kazakhs have told the AP that their relatives have been released, but many others say their loved ones remain in detention, were sentenced to prison or transferred to forced labour in factories.
In October 2019, the US imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in” the detention of Muslims in Xinjiang.
It also blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies linked to abuses in the region – including surveillance technology manufacturers and Xinjiang’s public security bureau – effectively blocking them from buying US products.
Last month, Trump signed legislation, passed with overwhelming support from Congress, mandating that individuals, including Chen, face sanctions for oppressing Uighurs. The law also requires that US businesses and individuals selling products to or operating in Xinjiang ensure their activities don’t contribute to human rights violations, including the use of forced labour.
The UN estimates that more than a million Muslims have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang region.
China threatened retaliation after US President Donald Trump signed legislation in June with little fanfare, calling for sanctions over the repression of China’s Uighurs.