The Donald Trump administration has imposed sanctions on many officials of the Chinese government for human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority that are largely Muslim. The proscribed officials include a senior member of the Communist Party of China (CCP).
In a move that is likely to increase tensions between Washington, DC, and Beijing, the US targeted among other bureaucrats Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s Politburo and party secretary in Xinjiang. The Trump administration penalised Zhu Hailun, a former deputy party secretary for the region; Wang Mingshan, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, and Huo Liujun, a former party secretary of the bureau as well. The Politburo faces US sanctions too, reports The New York Times.
Trump administration officials have been condemning the government of China for its response to the global COVID pandemic for the past few months. The US deplores also the Chinese suppression of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. It castigates China for the mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
“The United States will not stand idly by as the C.C.P. carries out human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on 9 July, referring to the CCP.
A spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, said today Beijing would retaliate. China is now going to target relevant US institutions and individuals for “egregious” conduct on Xinjiang-related issues.
The US levied the sanctions against Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. This law was passed in 2016. It enables the US to impose human rights penalties on foreign officials. However, the steps appear largely symbolic, as none of the officials is likely to hold assets of much value outside China.
2018: When murmurs against China in Trump administration began
The move is a culmination of the 2018 discussions in the Trump administration to punish senior Chinese officials and companies for Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs. Even as minority Muslims languished in China’s internment camps, the discussions had borne no fruit earlier as commercial advisers to the US president negotiated an end to the trade war with Beijing.
Meanwhile, President Trump focussed on securing a deal that would include a commitment by China to increase its purchases of American agricultural products — for purposes of his re-election campaign. John R Bolton, a former national security adviser, wrote a whole book on these developments while private accounts by other officials vouched for the claim.
Anyway, Trump was not interested in prioritising action against China for its human rights abuses. The US president, Bolton’s book reveals, even told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to continue building the internment camps used to detain Muslims. This “Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do”, according to Bolton’s book.
When the US took a harder look
Then in October 2019, the Trump administration imposed visa restrictions on some officials of China. It imposed import controls on certain organisations in the western region of Xinjiang too. These ‘punishments’ were, however, fairly weak. Some Americans officials advocated harsher measures.
The actions of yesterday target a group of officials who played a major role in devising and enforcing Xinjiang policies. These policies led to the detention of hundreds of thousands — maybe a million, going by some estimates — of largely Muslim ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps. American intelligence agency CIA says China also smothered these groups under a net of surveillance.
An Uyghur lawyer who is an American resident in Washington, Rayhan Asat said sanctions under the Magnitsky Act permitted the US to hold Chinese officials accountable for “genocide” in Xinjiang. Security officials had detained her younger brother Ekpar Asat after he returned to Xinjiang in 2016 from the US on a State Department cultural exchange programme. The Chinese judiciary sentenced him to 15 years in prison on criminal charges.
“Today’s decision sends a clear message to the perpetrators that they cannot continue to commit the crime of all crimes with impunity, to victims like my brother Ekpar Asat that they are not forgotten, and to the bystander countries to follow suit,” Rayhan Asat added.
The most prominent of the four officials facing sanctions, Chen has been the CCP secretary of Xinjiang since August 2016. He supervised a rise in mass detentions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in China. His actions attracted American sanctions through a congressional act on the Uyghur issue that became law last month.
The ruthless Chinese officials
The American media had reported last year on government documents from the Xinjiang region that described how Chen, who previously served as the party chief of Tibet, ordered officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
“Chen Quanguo is truly one of the worst human rights abusers in the world today, and he cut his repressive teeth in Tibet,” Matteo Mecacci, the president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said, reacting to the 9 July sanctions. “By developing a model of intense security and forced assimilation in the Tibet Autonomous Region, then implementing and expanding on that model in Xinjiang, Chen has inflicted untold suffering on millions of Tibetans, Uighurs and other non-Chinese ethnic groups.”
Zhu, another Chinese bureaucrat facing sanctions, led a CCP law-and-order committee in Xinjiang from 2016 to early last year. He allegedly played a crucial role in the mass-detention drive. He would urge officials in the region to cope with the practicalities of rapidly confining hundreds of thousands of people.
In 2017, a directive Zhu had signed called recent terrorist attacks in Britain “a warning and a lesson for us.” The directive slammed the British government for its “excessive emphasis on ‘human rights above security,’ and inadequate controls on the propagation of extremism on the internet and in society.”
Huo and Wang, the two remaining officials facing Treasury Department penalties, were senior police officials in Xinjiang. They allegedly helped introduce the surveillance programmes and technology to constrict Uyghurs and other minority members. The technology tracked their movements, recorded their visits to sensitive sites like mosques and collected their DNA and other biometric information.
Defence of the indefensible
China has constantly defended the indoctrination camps. They have no qualms about admitting the camps are intended to break down inmates’ devotion to Islam. They clearly say the camps deter “separatist” tendencies and turn people into loyal supporters of the CCP.
China describes the camps as humane vocational training centres. Their officials say the camps have helped extinguish extremist violence in Xinjiang. Neutral accounts, however, present a bleak picture of the camps. These include harsh conditions, forced labour and inhuman separation of families.
“The centres are managed as boarding schools where trainees may go home on a regular basis,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a long statement last week defending the country’s human rights record. “Trainees’ freedom of religious belief is fully respected and protected at the centers.”
However, some human rights groups that have been fighting for justice for the Uyghurs say the Trump administration’s latest actions constituted a long-awaited breakthrough. “A global response is long overdue,” said Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “This is the beginning of the end of impunity for the Chinese government.”