US urged to use sanctions and block surveillance tech sales to squeeze China over Xinjiang

Speaking at a US House of Representatives hearing this week, witnesses from academia and human rights advocacy said the Trump administration should pursue economic sanctions against Chinese officials, expose American companies providing Chinese authorities with surveillance technology and dispatch a congressional fact-finding mission to the region, among other measures.

In response, China’s foreign ministry accused the US of “interfering with China's internal affairs” and urged it to “stop stirring up” the issue.

The appeals came amid reports that between several hundred thousand and 1 million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims are being detained in extrajudicial internment camps and subjected to enforced political re-education in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Chinese officials have denied the existence of arbitrary detention and enforced political re-education, instead saying that some citizens are being sent to vocational centres for minor criminal misdemeanours, and that all counterterrorism measures have been carried out in accordance with the law.

“What’s happening there should be confined to science fiction, but unfortunately it’s not,” Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, said at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing, convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

Adrian Zenz, a researcher credited as being one of the first to produce a detailed picture of the existence and scope of mass internment camps in Xinjiang, called on the US government to investigate whether American companies were involved in supplying cutting-edge technology that could be used by Chinese authorities for surveillance and other security-related systems in Xinjiang.

“If so, the export of such products should be stopped,” said Zenz, whose research into the crackdown in Xinjiang is based largely on Chinese government documents.

Kenneth Jarrett, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said that the issue of American firms’ potential involvement in supplying surveillance technology deployed in Xinjiang had not yet become a “topic of conversation” for the association’s roughly 1,500 member companies, but that business leaders were generally following events in Xinjiang closely.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, Jarrett said action by the chamber would depend on “what comes from Washington”, but emphasised it would always make sure that members were “attuned to the politics that are developing”.

“Some companies may not fully realise what is going on or what it means to sell equipment to Xinjiang,” Zenz said.

All witnesses who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing said US President Donald Trump’s administration should implement the Global Magnitsky Act, a form of economic sanctions that would freeze the assets of Chinese officials deemed crucial to their government’s Xinjiang operations.

That measure was initially proposed by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an influential body chaired by Senator Marco Rubio that issued the appeal in the form of a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in late August.

“The main effect of such sanctions may not necessarily be the sanctions themselves but the symbolic force they exert and the resulting increase in public awareness,” Zenz said.

The proposed sanctions identified one prominent potential target as Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, who took office two years ago, several months before the mass internment camps are believed to have been established in spring 2017.

His tenure had heralded the “dehumanisation of the Uygur people”, Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project, said on Wednesday, accusing local authorities of enacting policies that discriminated against Uygurs by criminalising religious expression.

A spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was the common wish for people of all ethnicity in Xinjiang to pursue long-lasting stability, order and peace, adding that people in Xinjiang are “living in harmony, feeling safer and more satisfied about social stability”.

“China has always resolutely opposed the US using the Xinjiang issue to interfere with China's internal affairs,” the spokesman said in response to a Post inquiry.

“We urge the US to respect the facts, setting aside bias and stop stirring up relevant issues and make more contributions to improve mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries.”

As well as calling on the subcommittee to guide binding legislation through Congress to commit the US government to a policy response to the situation in Xinjiang, Turkel appealed to the administration to follow the examples of Sweden and Germany, both of which recently announced moratoriums on the deportation of Uygurs to China.

He also suggested that the government offer educational subsidies to US-based Uygur students whose parents were in detention.

After hearing the oral testimonies on Wednesday, the subcommittee will receive written statements on the matter over five days.

Yoho, the congressman from Florida, said the information gathered from testimonies “would go into resolutions, letters to different companies [and] different entities that are involved in this”.

He said similar committee hearings had led to substantive legislative landmarks such as the Cambodia Democracy Act, currently awaiting Senate approval, and the Taiwan Travel Act, which became law earlier this year.

While the Chinese government has shown no signs of altering its policies in Xinjiang, increased scrutiny from international governments, the United Nations and human rights advocacy groups has contributed to a shift in the way that government officials and state media have framed the issue.

There has been “a clear shift from denial to justification”, Zenz previously told the Post.

“State media outlets are clearly moving from trying to ignore the issue, or sidelining it by focusing on purported successes in economic development, to justifying Xinjiang’s tougher measures, arguing that Xinjiang’s stringent de-extremification measures work,” Zenz said.

“This strategy compares Xinjiang’s extremism problem to that of Europe,” he said, “arguing that Europe’s softer approach has essentially been less effective.”

Echoing that narrative, Li Wei, a counterterrorism specialist at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argued that Chinese efforts to weed out extremism had used the methods employed by other countries as a reference.

Those countries “included Saudi Arabia, some European countries and the United States”, he said. “The US was the first to bring up de-extremification.”

Speaking on Wednesday, Zenz acknowledged that China faced a “credible terrorist threat” from Uygur resistance groups.

“However, China’s extralegal internment of large numbers of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority is tearing apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, who have no splittist or extremist intentions and pursue harmless and appropriate cultural and religious practices,” he said.

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