WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China said on Friday it would take “reciprocal measures” against the United States after Washington imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority.
Beijing described the new U.S. sanctions as “deeply detrimental” to mutual relations, already strained by differences over China’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and its tightening grip on Hong Kong.
Washington imposed sanctions on the autonomous region of Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s powerful Politburo, and three other officials.
A senior U.S. administration official described Chen as the highest ranking Chinese official that the United States has sanctioned.
The decision is “no joke,” the U.S. official said. “Not only in terms of symbolic and reputational affect, but it does have real meaning on a person’s ability to move around the world and conduct business.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing the U.S. decision was a serious interference in Chinese affairs.
“In light of these wrong actions, China will impose reciprocal measures on U.S. officials and organizations that have displayed egregious behaviour on human rights in relation to Xinjiang affairs,” Zhao said.
“We urge the U.S. to correct this wrong decision. If the U.S. continues to proceed, China will take firm countermeasures.”
Washington’s sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to target human rights violators worldwide by freezing any U.S. assets, banning U.S. travel and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
Sanctions were also imposed on Zhu Hailun, deputy secretary of the regional legislative body, the Xinjiang’s People’s Congress; Wang Mingshan, the director and Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; and the former party secretary of the bureau, Huo Liujun.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was also barring Chen, Zhu, Wang and their immediate families, and other unnamed Chinese Communist Party officials, from traveling to the United States.
The World Uyghur Congress, the main exile group, welcomed the move and urged the European Union and other countries to follow suit.
U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sponsored legislation signed by President Donald Trump in June that calls for sanctions over the repression of Uighurs, told Reuters the move was “long overdue” and that more steps were needed.
The Associated Press reported last month that China was trying to slash birth rates amongst Uighurs with forced birth control. China denounced the report as fabricated.
Despite Trump’s public remarks about Beijing, former national security adviser John Bolton alleged in his recent book that Trump said Chinese President Xi Jinping should go ahead with building detention camps in Xinjiang and sought Xi’s help to win re-election in November.
Trump said in an interview last month he had held off on tougher sanctions on China over Uighur human rights because of concerns that such measures would have interfered in trade negotiations with Beijing.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had also raised objections to the Treasury sanctions, especially against a Politburo member, out of concerns they could further damage U.S.-China relations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“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,” Mnuchin said in a statement.
Peter Harrell, a former U.S. official and sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, said Thursday’s move may signal a continued shift of “paying more attention to human rights abuses in China ... after several years of relative neglect.”
Chen is widely considered the senior official responsible for the security crackdown in Xinjiang. United Nations experts and activists estimate more than a million Muslims have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang region.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Tim Ahmann, Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Mary Milliken, Marguerita Choy, Richard Chang adn Timothy Heritage