China vowed it will impose retaliatory measures against the United States after the latter slapped sanctions on Chinese officials suspected for their involvement in the crackdown against the Uyghur Muslim minority.
The two countries have traded barbs and sanctions on a slew of issues since President Donald Trump took office, from trade to more recent spats over the coronavirus pandemic, a security law in Hong Kong, and Chinese policies in the far west regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The latest Chinese response followed a US announcement of visa bans and an assets freeze on three officials, including Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and architect of Beijing’s hardline policies against restive minorities.
A senior US administration official described Chen as the highest ranking Chinese official that the United States has sanctioned.
The decision is “no joke,” the US official said. “Not only in terms of symbolic and reputational affect, but it does have real meaning on a person’s ability to move around the world and conduct business.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing the US decision was a serious interference in Chinese affairs.
“In light of these wrong actions, China will impose reciprocal measures on US officials and organisations that have displayed egregious behaviour on human rights in relation to Xinjiang affairs,” Zhao said.
“We urge the US to correct this wrong decision. If the US continues to proceed, China will take firm countermeasures.”
Washington’s sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to target human rights violators worldwide by freezing any US assets, banning US travel and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
Sanctions were also imposed on Zhu Hailun, deputy secretary of the regional legislative body, the Xinjiang’s People’s Congress; Wang Mingshan, the director and Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; and the former party secretary of the bureau, HuoLiujun.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was also barring Chen, Zhu, Wang and their immediate families, and other unnamed Chinese Communist Party officials, from traveling to the United States.
The World Uyghur Congress, the main exile group, welcomed the move and urged the European Union and other countries to follow suit.
US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sponsored legislation signed by President Donald Trump in June that calls for sanctions over the repression of Uyghurs, told Reuters the move was “long overdue” and that more steps were needed.
The Associated Press reported last month that China was trying to slash birth rates amongst Uyghurs with forced birth control. China denounced the report as fabricated.
Despite Trump’s public remarks about Beijing, former national security adviser John Bolton alleged in his recent book that Trump said Chinese President Xi Jinping should go ahead with building detention camps in Xinjiang and sought Xi’s help to win re-election in November.
Trump said in an interview last month he had held off on tougher sanctions on China over Uyghur human rights because of concerns that such measures would have interfered in trade negotiations with Beijing.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had also raised objections to the Treasury sanctions, especially against a Politburo member, out of concerns they could further damage US-China relations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“The United States is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world,” Mnuchin said in a statement.
Peter Harrell, a former US official and sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, said Thursday’s move may signal a continued shift of “paying more attention to human rights abuses in China … after several years of relative neglect.”
Chen is widely considered the senior official responsible for the security crackdown in Xinjiang. United Nations experts and activists estimate more than a million Muslims have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang region. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)