WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers complained to the Trump administration on Monday that its response to rights abuses against China’s Muslim minority was inadequate months after it said it was looking into imposing sanctions.
“This issue is bigger than just China. It is about demonstrating to strongmen globally that the world will hold them accountable for their actions,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The group is led by Eliot Engel, Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and includes Republican ranking member Representative Ted Yoho.
Pompeo wrote to the committee on Sept. 28 saying his department was looking into a request for sanctions on those responsible for abuses and for controls on exports of technology that facilitates mass detentions and surveillance of ethnic minorities in western China’s Xinjiang region, the letter said.
“It appears that the Administration has taken no meaningful action ... and we write today with a renewed sense of urgency on this serious matter,” said the letter, also signed by Brad Sherman, Democratic chairman of the Asia and Pacific subcommittee, and Chris Smith, Republican ranking member of the human rights subcommittee.
The U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, told reporters the issue was “being discussed thoroughly within the administration,” but he had no new steps to announce.
Brownback spoke at a Capitol Hill event to mark the formation of the Coalition to Advance Religious Freedom in China, a multi-faith group of over a dozen religious and rights organizations established to campaign against persecution.
A spokeswoman for the State Department said it remained “deeply disturbed that since April 2017, the Chinese government has detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in internment camps.”
“We will continue to call on China to end these counterproductive policies, free all those arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate,” she said.
China denies the allegations.
U.S. officials said last year the administration was considering sanctions against companies and officials linked to China’s crackdown, including Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of the Chinese leadership’s powerful politburo.
But no action has been forthcoming, with the administration engaged in sensitive negotiations to resolve a trade war between the countries. Pompeo said on Monday he thought they were “on the cusp” of a deal to end the trade war.
In a November interview with Reuters, China’s ambassador to Washington warned of retaliation if Washington were to impose sanctions on Chen.
Speaking at a daily news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he hoped the lawmakers would “respect the facts” and “refrain from smears and actions that could damage the China-U.S. relationship”.
“This will bring no benefit to them,” he said.
The U.S. lawmakers said it was a particular concern that U.S. firms might be contributing to the Xinjiang persecution, given commercial ties to Chinese tech companies that had profited from a surge in security spending there.
They called for written responses from Pompeo as to whether the U.S. government monitored the use of U.S. technology that could be used for surveillance or detention in Xinjiang and information on any U.S. firms providing such technology.
The letter highlighted a Jan. 31 Reuters report saying that Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group, co-founded by former U.S. military services contractor Erik Prince, had signed a deal to build a training base in Xinjiang.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Philip Wen in Beijing; Editing by Grant McCool and Sonya Hepinstall