US is close to sanctioning Chinese officials over Muslim camps
Jun 21, 2019
Photo: AFP/Greg Baker
Nectar Gan andOwen Churchill

The US government is poised to punish Chinese officials over the mass detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

A sanctions package has gained consensus across several government departments, according to a US official and two other individuals briefed on the matter.

However, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is said to have held up its implementation due to concerns that it could disrupt the ongoing trade negotiations.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uygurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, prompting a growing global outcry.

Washington has called on Beijing to stop the detention program, and US lawmakers have been pushing for sanctions. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is said to have held up the sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the mass detention of Muslim minorities. Photo: EPA-EFE/Stringer

Sources said Washington had already prepared sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, an Obama-era tool that freezes the US-based assets and restricts travel of foreign individuals deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

In May, the State Department invited Uygur advocacy groups to submit evidence of Chinese officials responsible for the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, according to a person with knowledge of the request.

“The sanctions are ready,” the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’re ready to go.”

That account was confirmed by people recently briefed by the US government, including Omer Kanat of the Washington-based group Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The scope and scale of the planned sanctions have not been announced, but US lawmakers had previously called on the Trump administration to punish Chen Quanguo, the Chinese Communist Party chief overseeing the far-western region, among other officials.

A video released by state broadcaster CCTV shows young Muslims reading from official Chinese-language textbooks at the Hotan Vocational Education and Training Center in Xinjiang. Photo: CCTV via AP

The Chinese government has vehemently defended the camps, calling them “vocational training centers” designed to combat terrorism and extremism.

Beijing bristles at any mention of US action over Xinjiang. In March, a foreign ministry spokesman slammed calls from US lawmakers for sanctions as “smears” and attempts to sabotage bilateral relations.

Sources said Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, considered a moderate in dealings with China, was worried that the sanctions would impede the trade talks.

Following a trade war escalation, China and the US resumed their negotiations recently, before Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the G20 summit in Japan next week.

A government official said the Treasury Department also refused to work on a Xinjiang sanctions package in December, right after Trump and Xi reached a trade war ceasefire agreement.

The official said Mnuchin’s position at the time was: “I want my trade deal done.”

The Treasury Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents walk through a security checkpoint into the Hotan Bazaar in Hotan, Xinjiang. Mass detentions and surveillance in Xinjiang have prompted a global outcry. Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan

Both Republicans and Democrats have been calling for such sanctions. A bipartisan bill – the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 – is headed to a vote in the Senate, demanding the secretary of state consider targeted sanctions against officials responsible for the internment program.

Washington is weighing whether to limit the Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision’s ability to buy American technology, after it announced a similar ban on the telecoms equipment giant Huawei in May, the New York Times reported last month.

If so, it would mark the first time the Trump administration has punished a Chinese company for its role in the surveillance and mass detention of Uygurs.

Nectar is a contributor to Inkstone, and a reporter for the South China Morning Post covering Chinese politics, policy, ethnicity and religion.
Owen is a contributor to Inkstone. He is a US correspondent for the South China Morning Post based in Washington DC.