US imposes sanctions on Chinese officials over mass detention of Muslims

  • >>Pranshu Verma and Edward Wong, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-10 11:20:59 BdST

A street near a mosque in Xinjiang, China, Aug 5, 2019. The New York Times

The Trump administration imposed sanctions Thursday on multiple officials from China, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority, a move that is likely to inflame tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The targets of the sanctions included Chen Quanguo — a member of China’s 25-member ruling Politburo and party secretary of the Xinjiang region — and is likely to anger top officials in the Communist Party given his stature. Other officials penalized include 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. The bureau also faces sanctions.

In recent months, Trump administration officials have criticised Beijing for its response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as its efforts to suppress pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and its mass detention of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.

“The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP 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 Thursday, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

Representatives from the Chinese Embassy did not immediately return a request for comment.

The sanctions against Chinese officials were levied under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which was passed in 2016 and gives the United States the ability to impose human rights penalties on foreign officials. But the measures appear largely to be symbolic, as none of the officials are likely to hold significant assets outside China.

The move also comes after talks first arose in 2018 within the Trump administration to punish senior Chinese officials and companies for the detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minority Muslims in large internment camps. But those discussions languished as trade advisers in the administration tried to negotiate an end to the trade war with Beijing.

For purposes of his reelection campaign, President Donald Trump was focused on securing a deal that would include a commitment by China to increase its purchases of American agricultural products, according to a recent book by John Bolton, the former national security adviser, and private accounts by other officials.

Trump showed no qualms about prioritizing trade talks with China while ignoring human rights abuses in the country. He even told President Xi Jinping of China to continue building the internment camps used to detain Muslims — “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” according to Bolton’s book.

In October 2019, the Trump administration imposed visa restrictions on some Chinese officials and import controls on certain organizations in the western region of Xinjiang. While those were the first punishments imposed by any government in relation to the vast human rights abuses there, they were fairly weak even though some US officials have advocated harsher measures.

The actions Thursday target a cluster of officials who played a major role in devising and enforcing policies in Xinjiang that have detained hundreds of thousands — some estimates put it at more than 1 million — members of largely Muslim ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps, while also smothering those groups under a net of surveillance.

Rayhan Asat, a Uighur lawyer who is a US resident in Washington, said sanctions imposed under the Magnitsky Act allowed the United States to hold Chinese officials accountable for what she called genocide in Xinjiang. Her younger brother, Ekpar Asat, was detained by security officials after he returned to Xinjiang in 2016 following a visit to the United States on a State Department cultural exchange programme. He was reportedly sentenced 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 said.

Chen, the most prominent of the four officials facing sanctions, has been the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang since August 2016. He oversaw a rise in mass detentions of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities, and consequently was named as a potential target of US sanctions in a congressional act on the Uighur issue signed into law last month. The New York Times reported last year on government documents from the Xinjiang region that described how Chen, who previously served as a 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,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, in response to the announcement Thursday. “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.”

Another official facing sanctions, Zhu, led a Communist Party law-and-order committee in Xinjiang from 2016 until early last year. Zhu appears to have played an important role in the mass-detention drive, urging officials across the region and helping them cope with the practicalities of rapidly confining hundreds of thousands of people.

In 2017, a directive signed by Zhu called recent terrorist attacks in Britain “a warning and a lesson for us.” It blamed the British government’s “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 penalized by the Treasury Department, were senior police officials in Xinjiang who helped to introduce the surveillance programmes and technology that have constricted Uighurs and other minority members, tracking their movements, recording their visits to mosques or other sensitive sites like mosques and collecting their DNA and other biometric information.

Chinese officials have repeatedly defended the indoctrination camps, which are intended to break down inmates’ devotion to Islam, deter any “separatist” tendencies and turn people into loyal supporters of the Communist Party.

Officials have described the camps as humane vocational training centres that have helped extinguish extremist violence in Xinjiang. Testimony from former inmates and official records unearthed by researchers and journalists present a much bleaker picture of the camps, including harsh conditions, forced labour and the wrenching 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 centres.”

But for some human rights groups that have been fighting for justice for the Uighur community, the Trump administration’s actions Thursday was a long-awaited breakthrough.

“A global response is long overdue,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “This is the beginning of the end of impunity for the Chinese government.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company