American Lawmakers Push to Sanction Chinese Officials Over Xinjiang Camps
BEIJING—Members of Congress are pressuring the Trump administration to confront Beijing over the mass roundup of Muslims in internment camps, urging travel and financial sanctions be clamped on senior Chinese officials involved in the detentions.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and 16 other members of Congress from both parties called for the sanctions on seven Chinese officials and two businesses that make surveillance equipment.
An official at the Treasury Department, which is largely responsible for executing the administration’s sanctions policies, said the office “responds as appropriate to Congressional correspondence” and doesn’t “telegraph sanctions or comment on prospective actions.” A State Department spokeswoman said she hadn’t seen the letter.
The letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, cites the Communist Party boss of Xinjiang, the western region where Chinese authorities have over the past year vastly expanded an internment program that initially targeted religious extremists but now includes broad numbers of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group.
The build-out of detention centers to neutralize Uighur opposition to Communist Party rule has been under way for two years in Xinjiang. Only in recent months, as the build-out has gathered momentum, has the program begun to attract concerted criticism from Western governments.
China’s detention of as many as a million Uighurs and other Muslims in the camps “requires a tough, targeted and global response,” the letter from the Congress members said. “No Chinese official or business complicit in what is happening [in Xinjiang] should profit from access to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment. Senior Chinese officials have denied the mass incarcerations and said the centers are for vocational training.
In calling for sanctions, the letter urges the Trump administration to apply the Global Magnitsky Act. The act, named after a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who died in prison in 2009, allows the U.S. to freeze the assets and ban the entry of foreign individuals involved in gross violations of human rights or sizable acts of corruption.
While Congressional letters are sometimes dismissed by the State Department with a form response, this letter lands as officials inside the department are pushing for action on Xinjiang, said Todd Stein, a former State Department staffer who worked on human rights issues in China.
“It would not be surprising to see Magnitsky sanctions come out on Xinjiang,” said Mr. Stein.
The State Department last month said it was “deeply concerned” about the camps and the campaign against Chinese Muslims.
Xinjiang has come to resemble an armed encampment in recent years as the government battles what it sees as violent separatism fueled by terrorists. A high-tech surveillance network enables police to track and collect evidence on people seen as potentially threatening.
The detention centers, many of them equipped with watchtowers and surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire, have expanded in recent months, according to satellite imagery and interviews with former inmates and relatives of those detained.
Much of the spread of this security network has taken place under Xinjiang’s party chief, Chen Quanguo. He arrived in the region in 2016 after a stint in Tibet, where he is credited by security experts with stifling dissent and ending a series of self-immolations by Buddhist monks protesting government controls.
The letter sent by the Congress members names Mr. Chen. An attachment to the letter also cites Hu Lianhe, a senior official with the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, who defended the program before a U.N. panel last month. He denied arbitrary detentions were taking place and said the centers are being used as vocational training centers for petty criminal offenders.
Neither Mr. Chen nor Mr. Hu could be reached for comment late Wednesday in China. They haven’t responded to previous attempts to reach them to discuss the situation.
The two companies the Congress members want targeted areHangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. Ltd., two of the world’s largest manufacturers of video surveillance equipment. Both have significant business in Xinjiang and in the U.S. Both were also banned from supplying equipment to the U.S. military in the recently approved John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. The companies couldn’t be reached for comment.
Experts on Xinjiang disagree about how effective Magnitsky sanctions would be. David Brophy, a historian at the University of Sydney, said it isn’t clear if Xinjiang officials have large overseas bank accounts that would make them vulnerable to such sanctions. The Magnitsky sanctions were originally designed to target Russian officials with significant overseas wealth, he said.
He also said that Beijing could use the continuing U.S.-China trade war as a way to brush off any unilateral U.S. pressure over Xinjiang.
“It makes it very easy for China to characterize opposition to its policies in Xinjiang as simply part and parcel of efforts to constrain China’s economic development and its political rise,” he said.
China has rebuffed requests by Western governments in recent months for access to the detention centers in Xinjiang. In July, a senior European Union foreign affairs official, Paola Pampaloni, raised the request during an annual EU-China human rights dialogue and was promptly turned down, according to two people familiar with the talks.
Germany’s Interior Ministry last week told lawmakers it is halting deportations of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities to China for now. In April, a Uighur man was mistakenly deported from Germany to China due to what officials called an administrative error, according to German media reports.
—Andrea Thomas, Ian Talley and Courtney McBride contributed to this article.
Appeared in the August 30, 2018, print edition as ‘U.S. Lawmakers Hit China Camps.’