WASHINGTON • The US is imposing a visa ban on Chinese officials linked to the mass detention or abuse of Muslim minorities, the latest in an escalating series of US steps to pressure Beijing over what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called "the stain of the century".
Mr Pompeo is imposing the restriction on government leaders and Communist Party officials who are found responsible for or complicit in the detention and abuse of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other minority Muslim groups in the far western region of Xinjiang, according to the US State Department on Tuesday.
The State Department did not name the Chinese officials affected by the visa clampdown. Travel by those officials' family members will also be restricted.
Likely targets include Xinjiang's regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of China's 25-member Politburo. US lawmakers have singled him out in calls for sanctions over the detentions of as many as one million people.
While officials of his level or a few rungs below rarely travel abroad, the US making the move is more symbolic than punitive.
The move came just a day after the US Commerce Department cited the mistreatment of Muslim ethnic minorities in China in its decision to add 20 Chinese public security bureaus and eight companies to a trade blacklist.
Mr Pompeo said the visa restriction complements the Commerce Department's actions.
"The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other members of Muslim minority groups," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The United States calls on the People's Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang."
The move is authorised under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lets the secretary of state deny travel visas to people whose entry he determines "would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States".
The action comes at a sensitive time in US-China relations, with a high-level trade delegation from Beijing due in Washington for talks today and tomorrow.
China's Foreign Ministry pushed back yesterday, saying it had been "smeared" by the US.
"This is an act to deliberately make up excuses for its interference and to impede China's efforts in counter-terrorism in Xinjiang," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington said on Tuesday that its policies were aimed at fighting extremism and terrorism. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the crackdown after a string of deadly terrorist attacks on civilians starting in 2013.
China is planning to impose its own tighter visa restriction on US nationals with ties to anti-China groups, Reuters reported yesterday, citing people with knowledge of the matter. Mr Geng said he was unaware of the report.
China's Ministry of Public Security has, for months, been working on rules to limit the ability of anyone employed, or sponsored, by US intelligence services and human rights groups to travel to China.
The proposed changes, Reuters said, follow the introduction by the US of tighter visa rules for Chinese scholars in May.
The new US visa restriction has bolstered the case for Chinese action, one of the Reuters sources said.
The Chinese rules would mandate the drafting of a list of US military and Central Intelligence Agency-linked institutions and rights groups, and the addition of their employees to a visa blacklist, according to the Reuters sources.
The tighter restriction would come amid heightened concern in Beijing that the US and other governments are using such organisations to incite anti-government protests in both mainland China and Hong Kong, the first source said.
"The plan has been widely discussed by senior police officers over recent months, but made more likely to be implemented after the Hong Kong protests and the US visa ban on Chinese officials," the source added.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump warned that trade negotiations would suffer if China does anything bad to quell protests in Hong Kong.