WASHINGTON • China will retaliate "in proportion" if the United States sanctions its top official in the restive region of Xinjiang over alleged human rights abuses, China's ambassador to the US said on Tuesday, adding that Beijing's policies in the region are to "re-educate" terrorists.
Chinese ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai said in an interview that China's efforts to combat international terrorism are held to double standards, comparing Chinese actions in Xinjiang to US troops battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"Can you imagine (if) some American officials in charge of the fight against ISIS were sanctioned?" Mr Cui said, adding that "if such actions are taken, we have to retaliate".
Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, academics, foreign governments and UN rights experts over mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.
In August, a UN human rights panel said it had received credible reports that a million or more Uighurs are being held in what resembles a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy".
US officials have said the Trump administration is considering sanctions targeting companies and officials linked to China's crackdown on minority Muslims, including Xinjiang party secretary Chen Quanguo, who, as a member of the powerful politburo, is in the upper echelons of China's leadership.
Mr Cui said that while the US was using missiles and drones to kill terrorists, "we are trying to re-educate most of them, trying to turn them into normal persons (who) can go back to normal life".
"We'll see what happens. We will do everything in proportion," he said, responding to a question on how China would retaliate to possible US sanctions on Mr Chen.
His comments are the strongest yet to US threats on the issue.
Any US sanctions against so senior an official as Mr Chen would be a rare move on human rights grounds by the Trump administration, which is engaged in a trade war with China while also seeking its help to resolve a standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons.
The Chinese authorities routinely deny any ethnic or religious repression in Xinjiang. They say strict security measures - likened by critics to near martial law conditions, the detention centres and mass DNA collection - are needed to combat the influence of extremist groups.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called on Beijing to allow monitors in Xinjiang. China has responded by telling her to respect its sovereignty.