WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is looking more closely at a crackdown by China on minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region, a senior U.S. economic official said on Thursday, as Washington considers imposing sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses.
“We are looking at the situation, and Global Magnitsky is a tool that we use to curb human rights abuses around the world,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh told a congressional hearing.
Singh was responding to a question about possible sanctions against China for its treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.
The Global Magnitsky Act allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.
A U.N. rights panel said last month it had received credible reports that up to a million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang, and called for them to be freed.
The State Department this week acknowledged receipt of a letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions on a number of China officials accused of overseeing policies in Xinjiang.
The officials include Chen Quanguo, Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and also a member of the party’s politburo.
Any sanctions decision would be a rare move on human rights grounds by the Trump administration against China, with which it is engaged in a trade war while also seeking Beijing’s help to resolve a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Acting against so senior official as Chen would be unprecedented and would greatly anger Beijing.
On Tuesday, the State Department expressed deep concern over China’s “worsening crackdown” on Muslims in Xinjiang, while U.S. congressional sources said discussions of possible sanctions had gained momentum within the U.S. government, although imposition of steps did not appear imminent.
Also under consideration are sanctions the lawmakers sought against several Chinese companies involved in building detention camps and creating surveillance systems used to track and monitor Uighurs.
Beijing has said Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tension between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority who call the region home and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler