US House passes Bill supporting Xinjiang Uighurs, China slams 'interference in domestic affairs'

In a photo taken on May 31, 2019, Uighur men are seen leaving a mosque after prayers in Hotan, China's north-west Xinjiang region.
In a photo taken on May 31, 2019, Uighur men are seen leaving a mosque after prayers in Hotan, China's north-west Xinjiang region.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US House of Representatives on Tuesday (Nov 3) overwhelmingly approved a Bill that would require the Trump administration to toughen its response to China’s crackdown on its Muslim minority, drawing a sharp reaction from Beijing over the alleged interference in its internal affairs. 

The Uighur Act of 2019 is a stronger version of a Bill that angered Beijing when it passed the Senate in September and calls on President Donald Trump to impose sanctions for the first time on a member of China's powerful politburo, even as he seeks a deal with Beijing to end a damaging trade war buffeting the global economy.

In a statement on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry called the Bill a malicious attack against China and a serious interference in the country’s internal affairs. 

"We urge the US to immediately correct its mistake, to stop the above Bill on Xinjiang from becoming law, to stop using Xinjiang as a way to interfere in China’s domestic affairs," said the statement, attributed to the ministry’s spokeswoman, Ms Hua Chunying.

The Bill, passed 407 to 1 in the House, requires the US President to condemn abuses against Muslims and call for the closure of mass detention camps in the north-western region of Xinjiang.

It also calls for sanctions against senior Chinese officials who it says are responsible and specifically names Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who, as a politburo member, is in the upper echelons of China's leadership.

The revised Bill still has to be approved by the Senate before being sent to Trump. The White House has yet to say whether Mr Trump would sign or veto the Bill, which contains a provision allowing the President to waive sanctions if he determines this to be in the national interest.

China has consistently denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and says the camps are providing vocational training. It has warned of retaliation "in proportion" if Mr Chen were targeted.

On Tuesday, the editor-in-chief of China's Global Times newspaper, Mr Hu Xijin, said China might ban all US diplomatic passport holders from entering Xinjiang and that Beijing was also considering visa restrictions on US officials and lawmakers with "odious performance" on the Xinjiang issue.

The House debate comes days after Mr Trump angered Beijing by signing into law congressional legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

China responded to that on Monday by saying US military ships and aircraft would not be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and announced sanctions against several US non-government organizations.

 
 
 

Analysts say China's reaction to passage of the Uighur Bill could be stronger, though some doubted it would go so far as imposing visa bans on the likes of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a strong critic of China's Xinjiang policies who has been repeatedly denounced by Beijing.

"MODERN-DAY CONCENTRATION CAMPS"

Republican Congressman Chris Smith called China's actions in "modern-day concentration camps" in Xinjiang "audaciously repressive," involving "mass internment of millions on a scale not seen since the Holocaust."

"We cannot be silent. We must demand an end to these barbaric practices," Mr Smith said, adding that Chinese officials must be held accountable for crimes against humanity." "We must say 'never again' to the cultural genocide and the atrocities suffered by Uighurs and others in China."

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi called China's treatment of the Uighurs "an outrage to the collective conscience of the world." "America is watching," she said.

Mr Chris Johnson, a China expert at Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said passage of the Bill could lead to a further blurring of lines between the trade issue and the broader deteriorating Sino-US relationship, which China in the past has tended to keep separate.

"I'm not sure it's the Xinjiang issue being more sensitive than Hong Kong, I think there's a sort of piling on factor here that the Chinese are concerned about," he said.

Mr Trump said on Monday the Hong Kong legislation did not make trade negotiations with China easier, but he still believed Beijing wanted a deal. However, on Tuesday, he said an agreement might have to wait until after the US presidential election in November 2020.

Mr Johnson said he did not think passage of the Uighur act would be the reason for this, but added: "It would be another dousing of kindling with fuel."

 
 
 

In October, the State Department announced visa restrictions on officials it believes are responsible for abuses in Xinjiang, but did not say if they included Mr Chen.

The Bill in the House would require the president to submit to Congress within 120 days a list of officials responsible for the abuses and to impose sanctions on them under the Global Magnitsky Act, which provides for visa bans and asset freezes.

The Bill would also require the secretary of state to submit a report on abuses in Xinjiang, to include assessments of the numbers held in re-education and forced labor camps, where UN experts and activists say at least 1 million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minority groups have been detained.

It would also effectively ban the export to China of items that can be used for surveillance of individuals, including facial and voice-recognition technology.