U.S. Sanctions Top Chinese Officials Over Xinjiang Abuses

The U.S. 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, the Treasury Department said Thursday.

U.S. Sanctions Top Chinese Officials Over Xinjiang Abuses

The U.S. move is tied to the widespread detention of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, a policy that has been sharply criticized 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 U.S. 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.

The decision also marks the first time the U.S. has sanctioned a sitting Chinese official under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives the U.S. 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 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 2022.

Given Chen’s rank in the party hierarchy, which is comparable to a member of the U.S. 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.

U.S. Sanctions Top Chinese Officials Over Xinjiang Abuses

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

“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.”

New Pressures

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.

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.

“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,” according to the statement.

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.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.