by Beiyi Seow with Shaun Tandon in Washington
China said Friday it will impose tit-for-tat measures after the United States slapped sanctions on Chinese officials for their involvement in a crackdown on Muslim minorities, raising tensions between the superpowers.
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 Quanquo, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and architect of Beijing’s hardline policies against restive minorities.
“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 in a briefing.
“China has decided to impose reciprocal measures against the relevant US institutions and individuals who behave badly on Xinjiang-related issues,” Zhao said, without providing details about the sanctions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States was acting against “horrific and systematic abuses” in Xinjiang including forced labour, mass detention and involuntary population control.
The back-and-forth over Xinjiang comes just days after the two countries imposed visa restrictions on each other over their disagreement on Tibet.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday blamed the rising tensions on “McCarthy-style paranoia” in the United States.
‘At last, real consequences’
Witnesses and human rights groups say that China has rounded up more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in a vast brainwashing campaign aimed at forcibly homogenising minorities into the country’s Han majority.
Pompeo in a conference call with reporters Thursday called the situation “the stain of the century” and has previously drawn parallels with the Holocaust.
China counters that it is providing education and vocational training in a bid to reduce the allure of Islamic radicalism following a spate of deadly violence.
The Uighur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group, hailed the sanctions and urged other countries to follow suit.
“At last, real consequences have begun. This comes at the 11th hour for Uighurs,” said the US-based group’s executive director, Omer Kanat.
The other two officials hit with sanctions Thursday were Wang Mingshan, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, and Zhu Hailun, a former senior Communist leader in the region.
The Treasury Department sanctions also make it a crime in the United States to conduct financial transactions with the three people as well as a fourth person, former security official Huo Liujun, who was not subjected to the separate visa restrictions.
The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on the security bureau as an institution, pointing to its sweeping digital surveillance of Uighurs and other minorities.
‘A ripple effect’?
Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who studies human rights, doubted that Beijing would suddenly reverse course in Xinjiang.
But she voiced hope that the sanctions would have a broader impact and said it was especially noteworthy that the United States targeted Chen, who before Xinjiang made his name through strong-armed tactics in Tibet.
“My guess is that this will have a ripple effect throughout the Chinese Communist Party. Other would-be bad actors may think twice before engaging in behaviours like you see Chen Quanguo carrying out,” she said.
The visa ban impacts officials’ immediate families, depriving their children of the prestige of jetsetting across the Pacific for education or pleasure.
Congress has led the push for a tougher response on Xinjiang and in May passed an act that authorised sanctions, listing Chen by name, although Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took Thursday’s actions under separate authorities.
In a fresh effort, 78 members of Congress across party lines released a letter that urged the Trump administration to consider formally designating China’s policies as genocide.
Despite wide concern in Washington over treatment of the Uighurs, former national security advisor John Bolton in an explosive new book said he was shocked at Trump’s attitude on the issue.
Bolton wrote that Chinese President Xi Jinping explained his policies to Trump in a meeting and that the US leader, eager for a trade deal with Beijing, replied that the detention camps were “exactly the right thing to do.”