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U.S. Bans Travel by Chinese Officials Tied to Muslim Abuses

Nick Wadhams

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The Trump administration is slapping visa bans on Chinese officials linked to the mass detention of Muslims, the latest in an escalating series of U.S. steps to pressure Beijing over what Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.”

Pompeo is imposing the restrictions on government leaders and Communist Party officials who are found responsible for or complicit in the detention and abuse of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other minority Muslim groups in the far western region of Xinjiang, according to the State Department. Travel by those officials’ family members will also be restricted.

While such officials rarely travel abroad, making the move more symbolic than punitive, the news rattled investors already on edge over signs tensions between the two countries are rising ahead of the trade talks. The S&P 500 tumbled from session highs to trade lower by almost 1%.

“The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups,” Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday. “The United States calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.”

The move is authorized under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lets the secretary of state deny travel visas to people whose entry he determines “would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States.” The action comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations, with a trade delegation from Beijing due in Washington for talks Thursday and Friday.

State Department officials said U.S. law prevents them from announcing who is on the new visa-restriction list, though they said names were already being added. Likely targets include Xinjiang’s regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s 25-member Politburo, who U.S. lawmakers have singled out in calls for sanctions over the detentions of as many as 1 million people.

China’s foreign ministry pushed back Wednesday, saying it had been “smeared” by the U.S. “This is an act to deliberately make up excuses for its interference and to impede China’s efforts in counter terrorism in Xinjiang,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington said Tuesday that its policies were aimed at fighting extremism and terrorism. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the crackdown after a string of deadly terrorist attacks on civilians starting in 2013, including a flaming car attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

China is planning to impose its own tighter visa restrictions on U.S. nationals with ties to anti-China groups, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing people with knowledge of the matter. Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, said he was unaware of the report.

The visa bans were imposed in coordination with a U.S. Commerce Department announcement Monday placing eight of the country’s technology giants on a blacklist over the alleged rights abuses.

“We’re showing that this administration is following through,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia David Stilwell said in an interview. “It’s consistent, it’s deliberate and the goal is to get them to reconsider this terrible policy they have.”

The officials said the restrictions and the Commerce Department action are unrelated to trade talks, though one of the State Department officials said the U.S. believes Chinese officials don’t come to the table unless they know their negotiating partners are serious.

The Trump administration has steadily turned up the pressure on the Chinese government over Xinjiang. The U.S. led an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last month condemning China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and President President Donald Trump hosted a prominent Uighur exile at the White House in July.

The Xinjiang action is only the latest source of friction between the world’s two largest economies. On Monday, Trump warned that trade negotiations would suffer if China does anything “bad” to quell protests that have raged for weeks in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, China’s state television has said it will halt airing preseason National Basketball Association games in the country after the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the demonstrators.

The U.S. coordinated the latest move with allies in Europe and in the Muslim world and is pressing them to impose similar restrictions, according to one State Department official. The person said administration officials had been directed to raise the matter in almost all of their meetings during the UN General Assembly last month.

China has responded with outrage to punitive U.S. actions over Xinjiang. Responding earlier Tuesday to the Commerce Department action, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the country urged the U.S. to “immediately correct its mistake, withdraw the relevant decision and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

(Updates with Chinese foreign ministry comment from seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Dandan Li, Lucille Liu and Karen Leigh.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, ;Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Sharon Chen

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