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China bans entry to 4 US religious freedom advisors in retaliation to Xinjiang sanctions

The US imposed sanctions on Dec. 10 on Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang

China on Tuesday, December 21, slapped an entry ban on four members of a US federal commission on religious freedom, in retaliation for US sanctions on its officials over rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian named US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) chairwoman Nadine Maenza, vice chairman Nury Turkel and commissioners Anurima Bhargava and James W. Carr, saying they would be barred from entering China, and any assets held in China would be frozen.

“The US imposed illegal sanctions on Chinese officials under the pretext of so-called human rights issue in Xinjiang in accordance with its domestic law. Such action seriously interferes in China’s internal affairs, seriously violates basic norms governing international relations and seriously undermines China-US relations. China firmly opposes and strongly condemns this,” Zhao said.

“In response to the above-mentioned erroneous practice of the US side, China has decided to take reciprocal countermeasures in accordance with the Anti-foreign Sanctions Law of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

The US imposed sanctions on Dec. 10 on Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are subjected to mass incarceration, invasive surveillance and forced labor.

The sanctions unveiled on World human Rights Day include a US visa ban on the current and previous chairmen of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Erken Tuniyaz and Shohrat Zakir, and the blacklisting of a Chinese artificial intelligence company accused of supporting mass surveillance of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

“During their tenures, more than one million Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups have been detained in Xinjiang,” Treasury said in a statement.

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The USCIRF, a federal government body, condemned the sanctions.

“We are not surprised to see the Chinese government impose additional baseless sanctions in response to growing concern over its egregious human rights and religious freedom violations, especially its genocidal policies against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. As we have said before—USCIRF will not be silenced,” Maenza said in a statement. 

“The Chinese government needs to end its state-led oppression of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and others, rather than implementing misguided sanctions,” she said, referring to groups facing repression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

Uyghurs demonstrate to ask for news of their relatives and to express their concern about the ratification of an extradition treaty between China and Turkey, on Feb. 22 near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP)

International rebukes over Xinjiang

China’s tit-for-tat sanctions over Xinjiang come amid a string of international rebukes of Beijing over its policies toward the 12 million Uyghurs and small numbers of ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Turkic speakers.

On Dec. 9, an independent Uyghur Tribunal in London ruled that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Its ruling was based on evidence from survivors, witnesses and experts on the network of detention camps in which China has held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Beijing claims the camps are vocational training centers. 

Although the tribunal is non-binding and has no state backing, Uyghur groups responded to the findings of genocide and crimes against humanity by preparing or proceeding with lawsuits in Argentina and the U.K.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), headquartered in Germany, are preparing to submit a criminal complaint in Argentina. The country’s universal jurisdiction provisions enable courts to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity or genocide under international law, regardless of where they have taken place.

On Dec. 16, The High Court of England and Wales gave the WUC approval to proceed with a case against U.K. authorities for permitting the importation of cotton goods produced with Uyghur forced labor in China.

Last week, both chambers of the U.S. Congress unanimously passed  the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Once signed into la by President Joe Biden, the measure will block the import of goods into the U.S. from Xinjiang without “clear and convincing evidence” that they were not made with forced labor, and authorize sanctions on foreign individuals and entities found responsible for rights abuses.

The Biden administration and its predecessor have ramped up U.S. policies in response to Xinjiang rights abuses, including visa restrictions, sanctions, export controls and import restrictions, and the release of a business advisory on forced labor.

Earlier Thursday the Commerce Department added to its export blacklist 34 research institutes and tech companies in China that have been identified as developing technologies that can be used to surveil and repress minorities.

Citing abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, the U.S. and five other countries announced early this month that they will send athletes but not government officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which open in February.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against Uyghur genocide, in London, April 22. (Photo by Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Hong Kong election draws sanctions

On Monday, the State Department also sanctioned five officials in China’s Hong Kong liaison office, in connection with recent changes to election rules in the city that mean only candidates pre-approved by Beijing may stand.

Central Liaison Office deputy directors Chen Dong, He Jing, Lu Xinning, Tan Tienui and Yin Zonghua were named in its report to Congress, bringing the total number of officials sanctioned over rights abuses and loss of promised freedoms in Hong Kong to 39, including Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam.

“Foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions with the individuals listed in today’s report are subject to sanctions,” the State Department said in its statement.

It said there were “deep concerns about Beijing’s clear efforts to deprive Hongkongers of a meaningful voice” in elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Dec. 19.

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) approved new rules in March preventing anyone from standing for election in Hong Kong without the approval of a newly-expanded committee of Beijing loyalists.

The Election Committee that previously voted for the city’s chief executive was expanded, and now also directly appoints some members of the Legislative Council (LegCo).

China on Tuesday issued a white paper defending the electoral rule changes in Hong Kong, saying that there was scant democracy in Hong Kong under British colonial rule, during which the city went from an appointed body prior to the signing of the Joint Declaration to fully elected status in 1995, against strong opposition from Beijing.

“Anti-China agitators in Hong Kong and the external groups behind them must be held to account for impeding Hong Kong’s progress towards democracy,” the white paper said, adding that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has indeed taken steps to strengthen its control of the city, giving it a “form of democracy suited to its realities.”

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