US puts visa restrictions on Chinese officials for ‘suppression of Muslims’
Sanctions target those ‘believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uygurs, Kazakhs or other members of Muslim minority groups’.
The US government on Tuesday placed visa restrictions on Chinese government officials suspected of repressing Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in China.
The sanctions target government officials and members of the ruling Communist Party of China “who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uygurs, Kazakhs or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China”, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced, less than two days before planned high-level trade talks resume in Washington with a team led by Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He.
“The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against” Uygurs and the other Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which “includes mass detentions in internment camps”, Pompeo said.
The new sanctions follow the US Commerce Department’s decision on Monday to restrict the export of US products to 28 Chinese government and business entities identified as playing a role in the “brutal suppression” of Muslims in China. The “blacklist” of 20 local public security bureaus in Xinjiang and eight technology giants includes Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua Technology, two of the world’s largest manufacturers of video surveillance products.
“The United States calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, release all those arbitrarily detained and cease efforts to coerce members of Chinese Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate,” Pompeo said.
The meeting of Liu’s delegation on Thursday and Friday would be the first between the countries’ top negotiators on US soil since the talks collapsed in May, and there were signs of lowered expectations even before Pompeo’s announcement.
The visa restrictions are the latest in a recent series of bilateral friction points, including verbal clashes between the governments about ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, a backlash against a since-deleted tweet supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong by the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and an episode of Comedy Central’s animated series South Park, which poked fun at Chinese censors.
Highlighted by Tuesday’s action targeting Chinese officials over Xinjiang, tensions have reached a new inflection point that could have a “long-lasting” impact on the bilateral relationship, said Jude Blanchette, who heads China studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Irrespective of what happens with this round of trade talks, we’ve reached a new threshold just because of the intensity and the all-of-society actions that have been taken over the past seven days,” said Blanchette.
Tuesday’s move follows months of strongly worded criticism of Beijing’s policies and measures in Xinjiang by members of US President Donald Trump’s administration and congressional leaders, but little in the way of action.
“We [were] of course very happy with the US administration’s strong stance on this Uygur crisis, but we need[ed] some action,” Omer Kanat, director of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project, said on Tuesday.
“Uygurs want to see some action on the part of the US administration. Now yesterday and today it is happening. So therefore we are very, very grateful for the US administration for taking these concrete actions, which will have some consequences on the Chinese side.”
Kanat said the moves “show that the US administration is serious … They could have delayed the decision after” this week’s scheduled trade talks.
Welcoming the administration’s actions on Tuesday, Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the timing of the move nonetheless raised the question of whether the sanctions had been put in place “with the worrying prospect that it might get taken off the table” for the sake of progress in trade talks.
Economic relations have previously played into the Trump administration’s calculus regarding human rights sanctions.
The US government had a package of sanctions ready to deploy as early as June, the South China Morning Post reported at the time, citing a US official and two other individuals briefed on the matter.
They were held back owing to concern that they would disrupt trade negotiations, which had resumed before a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G20 conference in Japan, according to the sources, who were not authorised to speak about the delay.
“Obviously one wants very much for [Tuesday’s] sanctions to have been imposed for the right and principled reasons because they represent I think one of the most assertive US stances in responses to gross human rights violations by China in a very long time,” said Richardson.
She noted that the US had not enacted such sweeping human rights-related sanctions against China since it punished Beijing over the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Earlier on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing to “stay tuned” when asked if China would respond to the Commerce Department’s blacklist. He went on to accuse the US of having “sinister intentions” and said Washington should immediately correct its mistakes and stop interfering in China’s affairs.
“China will continue to take firm and forceful measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests,” he said.