The US House of Representatives approved a bill on Tuesday that could lead to tough sanctions on officials responsible for human rights abuse in China’s Xinjiang province, prompting vitriolic promises of retaliation from Beijing.
The Uighur Act of 2019, passed by 407 votes to one in the House, will compel US President Donald Trump to condemn the ongoing campaign of abuse against Muslims by authorities in the region. It must be passed in the US Senate before being sent to Mr Trump.
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Since 2017, over one million people, mainly Muslim members of the Uighur ethnic minority, have been detained in internment camps in west China’s vast Xinjiang province. Escapees have reported torture, rape and forced sterilisation taking place in prison-like venues, which Beijing denied existed before describing as re-education centres built to combat terrorism.
The Xinjiang bill, a stronger version of one passed in September, urged sanctions for Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s communist party secretary. Mr Chen is responsible for implementing the Muslim crackdown in the province and sits on China’s 25-member Politburo, the senior government committee.
The bill also bans US companies from exporting goods that could be used to aid the crackdown in Xinjiang, which draconian surveillance methods have effectively made a police state.
Chris Smith, Republican US Representative, said that officials guilty of spearheading the campaign must be held accountable for “crimes against humanity”. He said Beijing was using “modern-day concentration camps” to implement the “mass internment of millions on a scale not seen since the Holocaust”.
Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, said China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang were “an outrage to the collective conscience of the world”. She warned that “America is watching”.
Hua Chunyin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, threatened “further reactions” from Beijing. The bill was passed the week after Mr Trump signed a different bill supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, a move that also riled the Chinese government and prompted it to sanction US-based pro-democracy and human rights NGOs.
“Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion, but about fighting violence, terrorism and separatism,” Ms Hua said.
The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled news outlet, said Beijing was preparing to sanction US politicians in response to the Xinjiang bill. It added that restrictions on US organisations on a forthcoming “unreliable entities list” would be implemented.
Any credibility held by Beijing’s denials of abuse in Xinjiang, made in the face of inmate testimonials, satellite imagery showing camps and reports of Muslims being ‘disappeared’ in the province, has collapsed over the past month. Two leaked caches of secret CCP documents about the crackdown, including instructions about how to run internment camps, outlined detainment methods in detail.
Passing the Xinjiang bill during a trade war between the US and China, and shortly after Mr Trump signed the Hong Kong bill, adds even more tension to an already strained relationship between the countries.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump said that a US-China trade agreement may have to wait until after the 2020 US Presidential election.