US sanctions top Chinese officials over Xinjiang abuses

Bloomberg July 10 | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 10, 2020

The US sanctioned a top member of China’s ruling Communist Party and three other officials over human rights abuses in the western region of Xinjiang, a major escalation in the Trump administration’s increasingly tense rivalry with the country.

The sanctioned individuals include Chen Quanguo, the Xinjiang party secretary who sits on the 25-member Politburo, as well as Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee, and the current and former directors of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, said the Treasury Department.

Detention of Muslim Uighurs

The US move is tied to the widespread detention of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, a policy that has been sharply criticised by top American officials as well as human rights groups. It comes amid soaring tensions between Beijing and Washington over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s moves to quell dissent in Hong Kong, and a debate over the use of Chinese technology by the US and allies.

The US is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the statement.

The decision also marks the first time the US has sanctioned a sitting Chinese official under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives the US broad authority to impose human-rights sanctions on foreign officials. Senior administration officials had been pushing for the sanctions for months, but had been stymied by President Donald Trump, who fretted that they would complicate his U.S.-China trade deal.

Chen, seen as a rising star in the Communist Party, has become Chinas point man for subduing ethnic unrest. During his earlier stint in Tibet, Buddhist temples were told to display Chinese flags and images of party leaders. His implementation of a vast police state in Xinjiang and demonstrations of loyalty to Xi won him a promotion in 2017 to the Politburo, and he may be considered for a spot on its supreme Standing Committee, which now has just seven members, in 2022.

Given Chen’s rank in the party hierarchy, which is comparable to a member of the US cabinet, the move is also likely to infuriate President Xi Jinping’s government. Even though the sanctions were weeks in the making, the timing may be seen as deliberate because Treasury announced the move hours after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a major speech that called for better ties.

Chinas Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday morning.

“We are in uncharted territory right now,” said Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, who is now vice-president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “There hass never been an administration that thought the pursuit of top-level party officials would end well for either side.”

New pressures

The US has ramped up pressure on China across many fronts in recent months, accusing it of covering up the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and reneging on promises to guarantee political autonomy to the former British colony of Hong Kong. The election campaigns for Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have sought to taint each other as weak in confronting Beijings leaders.

This week Trump said the US was considering a ban of TikTok, the popular social media app owned by Chinas ByteDance Inc. The US is seeking to limit US companies ability to do business with Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co, while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has pushed for US pension funds to cut ties with Chinese companies. Senior officials have even discussed ways to undermine the Hong Kong dollars peg to the US dollar, although that remains a remote possibility.

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Published on July 10, 2020
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