The United States has imposed sanctions on three senior officials of the Chinese Communist party, including a member of the ruling politburo, for alleged human rights abuses targeting ethnic and religious minorities in the western part of the country.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in a statement: “The United States will not stand idly by as the Chinese Communist party carries out human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.”
Pompeo’s statement, accompanied by a similar announcement from the Treasury department, said additional visa restrictions were being placed on other party officials believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detentions.
The decision to bar the three senior officials from entering the US is the latest in a series of actions the Trump administration has taken against China as relations deteriorate over the coronavirus pandemic, human rights, Hong Kong and trade.
Just a day earlier, the administration had announced visa bans against officials deemed responsible for barring foreigners’ access to Tibet. Thursday’s step, however, hits a more senior level of leadership and is likely to draw a harsh response from Beijing.
The three officials targeted by name were: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region in north-west China and a member of the politburo; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang political and legal committee; and Wang Mingshan, party secretary of the Xinjiang public security bureau. They and their immediate family members are banned from entering the US.
Pressure is mounting for action on the forced detention and abuse of largely Muslim minorities in China. In response to an Associated Press investigation, 78 senators and members of Congress signed a letter urging the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials and call for a UN inquiry into whether the actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide.
Biden issued a statement calling the Chinese government’s actions “unconscionable crimes” and said he would work to “support a pathway for those persecuted to find safe haven in the United States and other nations”. And in the first attempt to enlist international law over the human rights abuses, Uighur exiles asked the international criminal court to investigate Beijing for genocide.
In recent years, the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1 million people in internment camps and prisons where they are subjected to ideological discipline, forced to denounce their religion and language and physically abused. China has also placed the children of detainees into dozens of orphanages, where they too are indoctrinated, former detainees and their families say.
China has long suspected the Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, of harbouring separatist tendencies because of their distinct culture, language and religion. 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.
In December last year, 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 their relatives have been released, but many others say their loved ones remain in detention, were sentenced to prison or transferred to forced labor in factories.
In October 2019, the United States 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 – in effect 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 labor.