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The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Muslim minorities, prompting Beijing to threaten possible retaliation just as the world’s two largest economies seek to close a trade deal.
The bill is an amended version of the Senate’s S. 178 to support the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in the Xinjiang region of western China, and it passed Tuesday, on a vote of 407 to 1. China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday urged the U.S. to stop the bill and vowed to further respond if the legislation progresses, without providing any details.
Ahead of the vote, Chinese state media warned that the government could release a list of “unreliable entities” that may lead to sanctions against U.S. companies. The Xinjiang bill follows legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters signed into law last week by President Donald Trump.
The legislative moves threaten to disrupt trade talks as a mid-December deadline approaches for new U.S. tariffs to take effect on Chinese goods. Stocks in Asia fell Wednesday, with Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo among those seeing declines.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, tweeted that the bill was a “paper tiger” with no special leverage to affect Xinjiang, and warned that American politicians with stakes in China should “be careful.” He tweeted earlier in the week that U.S. officials may face visa restrictions and limited travel to Xinjiang, where the Uighurs are concentrated.
China had already moved to sanction some human rights organizations and halt U.S. naval visits to Hong Kong in response to last week’s two new U.S. laws -- one to place the territory’s special trading status under annual review and the other to ban the export of crowd control devices to the city’s police.
China foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday pushed back against the House’s move, saying they were making “unwarranted accusations and totally untrue facts.” “These American Congressmen or politicians come to speak conscience to China on minority issues. This is just too ignorant, too shameless, and too hypocritical,” she said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the crackdown in Xinjiang after a string of deadly terrorist attacks on civilians starting in 2013. Those policies have been at the center of global criticism of its rights record, with the United Nations estimating that up to one million Muslims could be held in detention centers in the region.
The region has become a laboratory for surveillance technology, including facial recognition, and its Muslim residents are closely monitored. Checkpoints and security cameras are everywhere on the streets, including the entrances to common areas like markets.
QuickTake: The Uighurs
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in September called Beijing’s campaign against the Uighurs an “attempt to erase its own citizens’ Muslim faith and culture.” The Trump administration said the following month that it would slap visa bans on Chinese officials linked to the mass detention of Muslims.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected American criticism of China’s measures in Xinjiang at the UN in September, saying measures were taken in the region to prevent terrorism and extremism. The Chinese embassy in Washington repeated those claims Tuesday, saying “the narrative that there are ‘concentration camps’ and ‘detainees’ in Xinjiang is false.”
The regional rubber-stamp legislature followed that up in a statement Wednesday: “With the effective implementation and teaching and training, the vast majority of students have reached the training requirements and successfully completed the course.”
“Through learning, students are freed from the shackles of religious extremism, gradually get rid of the mind control of terrorism and extremism, master the tools to obtain modern knowledge and information, learn certain practical technology, have the ability to find jobs, and live a safe life again,” it said.
Legislation to hold China accountable for human rights violations has received rare bipartisan support in a Congress that is otherwise bitterly divided along party lines over whether to impeach Trump, and other issues.
That creates a dilemma for the president, who can’t afford to lose political capital opposing Congress but this week acknowledged that signing the Hong Kong legislation is making a trade deal this year increasingly unlikely.
Trump said Tuesday in London that “I have no deadline” for a trade accord with China and that he’d be willing to wait another year to get an agreement that favors the U.S. “It can’t be an even deal,” he told reporters. “If it’s an even deal, it’s no good.”
The House version of the Uighur human rights measure amends a Senate bill passed without objection in September. It adds provisions that require the president to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for the repression of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic group, and places restrictions on the export of devices that could be used to spy on or restrict the communications or movement of members of the group and other Chinese citizens.
Lawmakers, recognizing the momentum behind human rights legislation concerning China, are working to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills to agree on one version that can pass swiftly through Congress before the end of the year.
“It’s not about the particulars of it, it’s not about the policy of it,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said of the changes proposed in the House. Rubio added that there’s broad agreement about the underlying goals of the legislation.
Among other provisions, the bill requires the president to submit to Congress within 120 days a list of senior Chinese government officials guilty of human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xianjiang or elsewhere in China. That list would include Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and officials responsible for mass incarceration or “re-education“ efforts that single out Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
The president would be required to impose visa and financial restrictions on the listed individuals under the Global Magnitsky Act.
The bill would also tie U.S. policy toward China to the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang and the treatment of the Uighurs. It would require the State Department to submit a report to Congress on human rights violations in the region.
“We need to get something sent over here that’s acceptable to both sides and that we could hopefully persuade Banking to waive jurisdiction on it,” Rubio said, referring to the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over export controls.
Supporters of the bill in the Senate are seeking a way to quickly pass the legislation, which was changed substantially from its original form by the House. Under normal circumstances, the legislative process would essentially start over, but with Congress due to depart Washington in less than three weeks, expedited procedures are being considered.
(Updates with regional legislature’s comment. An earlier version corrected the spelling of Xinjiang in first deck headline.)
--With assistance from Naoreen Chowdhury, Jeffrey Black and Dandan Li.
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