Group of U.S. lawmakers urges China sanctions over Xinjiang abuses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday urged the United States to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses of minority Muslims in Xinjiang, saying the region was being turned into a “high-tech police state.”

FILE PHOTO: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at a press conference at the Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The group, led by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, Republican co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Executive Commission on China, made the call in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Muslims in China’s far western region of Xinjiang were “being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored,” said the letter, signed by 15 U.S. senators and representatives, besides Rubio and Smith.The letter, signed by nine Republicans, seven Democrats and one Independent, called for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against senior Chinese government and Communist Party officials overseeing the policies, including Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo, and for other measures to be considered.

The Magnitsky Act was originally designed to target Russian Rights violators, but has been expanded to allow sanctions for abuses anywhere in the world.

“The Chinese government is creating a high-tech police state in (Xinjiang) that is both a gross violation of privacy and international human rights,” the letter said.

China 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 the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

In Beijing on Thursday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the United States did “not have the right” to make “unwarranted criticism” of China’s policies toward ethnic minorities, and pointed to racial discrimination in the U.S.

“If viewed without bias or prejudice, China’s ethnic minority policies, and the rights and equality ethnic minorities enjoy, are even stronger than in the United States,” she told a regular news briefing.

She said U.S. lawmakers should concentrate on serving Americans rather than “interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries”, adding that China protected religious freedoms in line with the law.

A United Nations human rights panel this month said it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs in China were held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

Hundreds of people have been killed in violence in Xinjiang in recent years, prompting the tough security measures.

The U.S. lawmakers’ letter said as many as a million or more Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities were being detained in “political re-education” centers or camps, and called for “a tough, targeted, and global response.”

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

The U.S. State Department has said it is deeply troubled by Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang, but has declined to comment on the possibility of future sanctions on Chen and others.

Critics have said the security and surveillance in Xinjiang have created near martial law conditions, with police checkpoints, reeducation centers and mass DNA collection.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Philip Wen in BEIJING; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez