US Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith have urged the Donald Trump administration to swiftly impose sanctions on Chinese officials complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Their letter, released on Wednesday, appealed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. It said that sanctions should be imposed on hardline Chinese official Chen Quangguo – secretary of Xinjiang, and other officials complicit in rights abuses under the US Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The act enables the US government to issue targeted sanctions against individuals involved in human rights violations.

US Senator and chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China Marco Rubio. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Chinese authorities have conducted large-scale arrests of ethnic minorities in the Uyghur Muslim region of Xinjiang since 2014 after President Xi Jinping enacted “strike hard” government campaigns to tackle unrest. Since Chen Quangguo was transferred from Tibet to govern the far west region in August 2016, he has overseen the construction of a vast network of extrajudicial internment camps. He has also passed severe regulations to curtail religious and cultural expression, stepped up surveillance using advanced technology and increased the police presence.

Xinjiang’s security spending totalled more than 58 billion yuan (HK$66.6 billion) last year – twice its spending on healthcare, according to China Security expert Adrian Zenz.

At a hearing on the situation in Xinjiang by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China chaired by Rubio in July, senior editor of ChinaFile and former Research Analyst at the Department of State Jessica Batke testified in a personal capacity. She said Chen should be included in any package of sanctions imposed by the US.

Sanctioning tech companies

Rubio and Smith said that Chinese tech companies capitalising upon surveillance in the region should be met with sanctions: “We also urge consideration of sanctions… against entities assisting [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region] officials in mass detentions and surveillance of ethnic minorities, including Chinese companies like Hikvision and Dahua Technology that have profited greatly from the surge in security spending, reportedly winning upwards of $1.2 billion in government contracts for large scale surveillance projects.”

“No Chinese official or business complicit in what is happening in the XUAR should profit from access to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”

US Representative Chris Smith. Photo: Wikicommons.

The letter said that sanctions will impact China’s strategy for global development: “At a time when the Chinese government is seeking to expand its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, the last thing China’s leaders want is international condemnation of their poor and abusive treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.”

‘Tough, targeted, and global response’

Rubio and Smith added: “The detention of as many as a million or more Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities in ‘political reeducation’ centres or camps requires a tough, targeted, and global response.”

At a UN human rights committee in Geneva earlier this month, China denied the existence of “re-education camps,” insisting that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are treated equally.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.