WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would require the Trump administration to toughen its response to China’s crackdown on its Muslim minority, drawing swift condemnation from Beijing.
The Uighur Act of 2019 is a stronger version of a bill that angered Beijing when it passed the Senate in September. It 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 trade war buffeting the global economy.
Just last week, Trump signed into law legislation supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong despite angry objections from China.
The Uighur bill, which passed by 407-1 in the Democratic-controlled House, requires the U.S. president to condemn abuses against Muslims and call for the closure of mass detention camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
It 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 Republican-controlled Senate before being sent to Trump. The White House has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the bill, which contains a provision allowing the president to waive sanctions if he determines that to be in the national interest.
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 U.S. 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, Hua Chunying.
China has consistently denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and says the camps are providing vocational training. It has warned of retaliation “in proportion” if Chen were targeted.
The White House and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
China responded on Monday to the Hong Kong legislation by saying U.S. military ships and aircraft would not be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations.
Analysts say China’s reaction to passage of the Uighur bill could be stronger, although some doubted it would go so far as imposing visa bans on the likes of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has called China’s treatment of Uighurs “the stain of the century” and has been repeatedly denounced by Beijing.
Global Times, a tabloid published by the official People’s Daily newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, tweeted on Tuesday that Beijing would soon release a so-called unreliable entities list imposing sanctions against those who harm China’s interests.
It reported that China was expediting the process for the list because the U.S. House bill would “harm Chinese firms’ interests,” and that “relevant” U.S. entities would be part of Beijing’s list.
Republican U.S. Representative 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,” Smith said, adding that Chinese officials must be held accountable for “crimes against humanity.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called China’s treatment of the Uighurs “an outrage to the collective conscience of the world,” adding that “America is watching.”
Chris Johnson, a China expert at Washington’s Center 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 China-U.S. relationship, which Beijing in the past has tended to keep separate.
“I think there’s a sort of piling-on factor here that the Chinese are concerned about,” he said.
Trump said on Monday the Hong Kong legislation did not make trade negotiations with China easier, but he still believed Beijing wanted a deal.
He said on Tuesday, however, that an agreement might have to wait until after the November 2020 U.S. presidential election in which he is seeking a second term.
Johnson said he did not think passage of the Uighur act would cause the delay, but added: “It would be another dousing of kindling with fuel.”
The House bill requires 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 also requires 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. United Nations experts and activists say at least 1 million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minority groups have been detained in the camps.
It also effectively bans the export to China of items that can be used for surveillance of individuals, including facial and voice-recognition technology.