The US action 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
China pledged to retaliate after the US sanctioned a top member of China’s ruling Communist Party and three other officials over human rights abuses in the far western region of Xinjiang.
“We urge the US to withdraw this wrong decision, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs and stop harming Chinese interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing on Friday. “If the US insists on going forward, China will take firm countermeasures.”
The sanctions are a “grave violation of basic norms governing international
relations and deeply detrimental to US-China relations,” Zhao said. “We reject and condemn that.” He didn’t give details of the reciprocal measures against “individuals and institutions,” but said they would be known “soon enough.”
The Trump administration’s move on Thursday marked an escalation in the increasingly tense rivalry between the world’s two biggest economies. The sanctioned individuals included 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.
The US action 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 United States is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement announcing the US move.
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 US-China trade deal.
Chen, seen as a rising star in the Communist Party, has become China’s 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 the coming years.
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.
“We’re in uncharted territory right now,” said Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “There’s never been an administration that thought the pursuit of top-level party officials would end well for either side.”
The U.S. 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 Beijing’s leaders.
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This week Trump said the U.S. was considering a ban of TikTok, the popular social media app owned by China’s ByteDance
Inc. The U.S. is seeking to limit U.S. companies’ ability to do business with Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co., while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has pushed for U.S. pension funds to cut ties with Chinese companies. Senior officials have even discussed ways to undermine the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the U.S. dollar, although that remains a remote possibility.
“The Wang Yi speech is a game plan for restoring some stability in the relationship and it’s taken very seriously on the Chinese side,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “It would be nice if somebody could give some kind of response before we whacked them again.”
Chen is the highest-ranking person to be hit with this kind of sanction in China, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The latest sanctions shouldn’t be construed as last word, the official said, when asked if further measures are under consideration for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or XPCC.
The U.S. statement on Thursday cited the public security bureau’s use of “repressive tactics,” including “mass detentions and surveillance” against the region’s Uighur population.
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“The entity and officials are being designated for their connection to serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which reportedly include mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious abuses targeting Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim population indigenous to Xinjiang, and other ethnic minorities in the region,” the statement said.
Although China is likely to object strongly to sanctions against a member of the Politburo, which oversees the running of the country, the sanctions likely won’t impact those targeted in any significant way. There’s little likelihood that the officials named have financial connections with the U.S. The sanctions block access to accounts or businesses owned, directly or indirectly, by the people or the bureau. It also prohibits U.S persons from doing business with the sanctioned officials or entities.
The move has “more symbolic significance than real impact,” said Zhou Qi, director of the Institute of American Studies at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “If some of them were planning to send their sons and daughters to study in the U.S., there will likely to be some impact on them individually. But in the view of the general public in China, the sanctions may not be a big deal for China as a country.”
Not thinking of Phase 2 China deal: Trump
US President Donald Trump
said on Friday he is not currently thinking about negotiating a "Phase 2" trade deal with China as relations between the nations sour over the coronavirus pandemic and other issues. Trump, asked by reporters aboard Air Force One about the possibility of second phase trade deal, said "I don't think about it now," adding that he has many other things on his mind. "The relationship with China has been severely damaged. They could have stopped the plague.... They didn't," Trump said. Reuters