China and U.S. in new spat over Uighur crackdown
China said on Friday it will impose tit-for-tat measures after the United States slapped sanctions on Chinese officials for their involvement in a crackdown on Muslim minorities, raising tensions between the superpowers.
The two countries have traded barbs and sanctions on a slew of issues since President Donald Trump took office, from trade to more recent spats over the coronavirus pandemic, a security law in Hong Kong, and Chinese policies in the far west regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The latest Chinese response followed a U.S. announcement of visa bans and an assets freeze on three officials, including Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and architect of Beijing's hardline policies against restive minorities.
"The U.S. actions seriously interfere in China's internal affairs, seriously violate the basic norms of international relations, and seriously damage China-U.S. relations," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a briefing. "China has decided to impose reciprocal measures against the relevant U.S. institutions and individuals who behave badly on Xinjiang-related issues."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States was acting against "horrific and systematic abuses" in Xinjiang including forced labour, mass detention and involuntary population control.
The back-and-forth over Xinjiang comes just days after the two countries imposed visa restrictions on each other over their disagreement on Tibet. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday blamed the rising tensions on "McCarthy-style paranoia" in the United States.
Witnesses and human rights groups say that China has rounded up more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in a vast brainwashing campaign aimed at forcibly homogenising minorities into the country's Han majority.
Pompeo in a conference call with reporters on Thursday called the situation "the stain of the century" and has previously drawn parallels with the Holocaust. China counters that it is providing education and vocational training in a bid to reduce the allure of Islamic radicalism following a spate of deadly violence.
The Uighur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group, hailed the sanctions and urged other countries to follow suit. "At last, real consequences have begun. This comes at the 11th hour for Uighurs," said the U.S.-based group's executive director, Omer Kanat.
The other two officials hit with sanctions on Thursday were Wang Mingshan, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, and Zhu Hailun, a former senior Communist leader in the region.
The Treasury Department sanctions also make it a crime in the United States to conduct financial transactions with the three people, as well as a fourth person, former security official Huo Liujun, who was not subjected to the separate visa restrictions. The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on the security bureau as an institution, pointing to its sweeping digital surveillance of Uighurs and other minorities.
Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who studies human rights, doubted that Beijing would suddenly reverse course in Xinjiang. But she voiced hope that the sanctions would have a broader impact and said it was especially noteworthy that the United States targeted Chen, who before Xinjiang made his name through strong-armed tactics in Tibet.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
"My guess is that this will have a ripple effect throughout the Chinese Communist Party. Other would-be bad actors may think twice before engaging in behaviours like you see Chen Quanguo carrying out," she said.
The visa ban impacts officials' immediate families, depriving their children of the prestige of jet-setting across the Pacific for education or pleasure.
Congress has led the push for a tougher response on Xinjiang and in May passed an act that authorised sanctions, listing Chen by name, although Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took Thursday's actions under separate authorities.
In a fresh effort, 78 members of Congress across party lines released a letter that urged the Trump administration to consider formally designating China's policies as genocide. Despite wide concern in Washington over treatment of the Uighurs, former national security advisor John Bolton in an explosive new book said he was shocked at Trump's attitude on the issue.
Bolton wrote that Chinese President Xi Jinping explained his policies to Trump in a meeting and that the U.S. leader, eager for a trade deal with Beijing, replied that the detention camps were "exactly the right thing to do." (AFP)