China announced sanctions against U.S. officials including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, in a largely symbolic attempt to retaliate over Washington’s moves to punish Beijing for its treatment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said sanctions against the four officials would begin Monday, without elaborating. Hua listed Rubio of Florida and Cruz of Texas -- both Republicans and high-profile critics of China -- as targets of the unspecified measures, in addition to Ambassador Sam Brownback, Representative Chris Smith and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
“Xinjiang is China’s internal affairs and U.S has no right to interfere,” Hua said at a regular news briefing Monday in Beijing. “We urge the U.S. to immediately withdraw its wrong decisions, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs or undermining China’s interests. We will make further reactions based on the development of the situation.”
The move comes after the U.S. sanctioned a top member of China’s ruling Communist Party and three other officials over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. Beijing has repeatedly vowed retaliation over U.S. actions intended to support residents of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, accusing Washington of inappropriately interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The individuals sanctioned by the U.S. include Chen Quanguo, a member of the 25-member Politburo who has overseen a crackdown in Xinjiang that the United Nations said had led to the detention of some 1 million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups. China disputes the claim, saying it’s seeking to prevent extremism and that most people in what it calls education facilities had “graduated.”
The tit-for-tat exchanges appeared calibrated to keep the disputes from further escalating and disrupting other aspects of ties between the world’s two largest economies, such as their “phase one” trade deal. The U.S. moves were largely symbolic, since both groups of U.S. and Chinese officials were unlikely to have much financial or legal exposure to each other’s countries.
“This is an equivalent action targeting the main people responsible for what happened with sanctioning Chinese officials over Xinjiang,” said Bo Zhengyuan, partner at Beijing-based research firm Plenum. “The move gives the U.S. a sense of how China will react when potential sanctions related to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act is announced. Beijing has shown that it will hit back with proportional actions, which is worrisome as the HKAA includes sanctions on entities such as financial institutions.”
Both U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping have incentives to try to look tough after their trade war and the subsequent coronavirus outbreak hardened public opinions on both sides of the Pacific. Democrats including Trump’s presumptive opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, have pledged support for tougher actions over Beijing’s efforts to rein in dissent in Xinjiang and the former British colony of Hong Kong.
Senior administration officials had been pushing sanctions over Xinjiang for months, but Trump worried that they would complicate his trade deal. The U.S. decision marked the first time Washington 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.
The list of U.S. officials targeted by China on Monday notably included no U.S. officials as senior as Chen. Rubio introduced the Senate version of U.S. legislation calling for sanctions against Xinjiang officials, one of several measures critical of China that Cruz has also supported.
Brownback, the U.S.’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, has been outspoken about Beijing’s clampdown in the region. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, is another prominent China critic in Congress.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a frequent target of criticism from Beijing, had earlier this year issued a report saying the country was using forced labor as part of an official policy to suppress and control its ethnic minorities. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban goods made in Xinjiang under the presumption they had been produced using forced labor.
“While the two sides may fight on certain issues, they will also cooperate when they need to,” said He Weiwen, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “The two can fight and cooperate at the same time, though it does seems there is more fighting and less cooperation recently.”
On Monday, Hua also dismissed a tweet reposted by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing including an image suggesting Chinese labor abuses in Xinjiang as “a badly made lie worth no refuting.”
“We oppose they use such inferior lies to smear and attack China,” Hua said. “It shows some American people have no bottom line in attacking China.”
(Updates with analyst quote in seventh paragraph.)
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