US sanctions Chinese officials over Uyghur abuse

Three additional companies are also blocked from exporting goods to the US due to the possible use of forced labor.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with representatives from human rights organizations, at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Updated Dec. 15 2023, 12:06 p.m. ET

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday announced new sanctions against two Chinese officials for “serious human rights abuses” against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as the United States also moved to block imports from three additional Chinese companies due to allegations of forced labor.

The State Department said that Gao Qi, as the leader of the northern Xinjiang Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture Public Security Bureau, had facilitated the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in a mass internment campaign. Security officials at the Tekes County Detention Center overseen by Gao have been documented to have engaged in “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” against Uyghurs, the U.S. said.

Hu Lianhe was the deputy office director for the Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group of the Central Committee, which the U.S. said has been “instrumental in shaping and implementing Xinjiang policies.”

Adrian Zenz, director of China Studies at the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said in an interview with RFA Uyghur that Hu Lianhe is the first central government official sanctioned in relation to the internment campaign in Xinjiang. 

“That is a very important signal that the perpetrators of this gradual genocide will be held to account,” said Zenz, who has extensively researched the abuse.

'Challenging,' 'harmful' abuses

The announcements were among a batch of actions the United States took ahead of the 75th anniversary on Sunday of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enumerates the fundamental rights that should be afforded to citizens across the globe, including the right to life, liberty and personal security. 

In all, the State and Treasury departments issued sanctions and visa restrictions on 37 people in 13 countries, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Russia and Syria.

“With today’s actions, the United States is addressing some of the most challenging and harmful forms of human rights abuses in the world,” Blinken said in a statement.

Dr. Adrian Zenz, director of China Studies at the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, testifies during a special House committee hearing, March 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Zenz says Hu Lianhe is the first official from China’s central government to be sanctioned in relation to the internment campaign in Xinjiang. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The decision to sanction the Chinese officials could complicate an already tense relationship between the U.S. and China just weeks after President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in San Francisco in hopes of mending ties. 

Though the summit produced few significant results, the United States did announce the removal of sanctions against the Chinese Ministry of Public Security's Institute of Forensic Science, reportedly as part of an effort to encourage action to stem the flow of precursors used to make the drug fentanyl, which have led to thousands of drug overdoses in the U.S.

The sanctions had been imposed originally due to China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

As many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other members of ethnic Turkic groups are thought to have been detained by Chinese authorities since 2017 in a forced assimilation campaign. The United States has previously labeled the effort a genocide. It has cited allegations of torture, forced labor, sterilization, and severe restrictions on freedom of speech, movement and religion.

China has called its efforts in Xinjiang a “de-extremification” campaign and dismissed allegations of widespread abuse as a lie. 

"The U.S. side has imposed illegal sanctions on Chinese officials under the pretext of human rights issue in Xinjiang in accordance with its domestic law," Chinese Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said in an email responding to the sanctions issued today. "Such acts grossly interfere in China's internal affairs, flagrantly violate the basic norms governing international relations and seriously undermine China-U.S. relations. China firmly opposes and strongly condemns them." 

 

Rushan Abbas, executive director of rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, testifies at a congressional hearing Sept. 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C. “The criminal architects behind the policies and model for the Uyghur genocide are being held accountable,” she says. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

In 2021, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, which prohibits goods from being imported in the U.S. that are produced in Xinjiang or on the Department of Homeland Security’s entity list unless the goods can be shown to have not been produced by forced labor. 

The three entities that the agency determined are in violation of a U.S. law designed to prevent the use of forced labor in Xinjiang are: the COFCO Sugar Holding Co., which produces and exports sugar and fruits including tomatoes; Sichuan Jingweida Technology Group Co., which makes magnetic devices for use in transformers; and the Anhui Xinya New Materials Co., a textile manufacturer.

“We have shown again through today’s enforcement actions that the United States will not tolerate forced labor in the goods that come into this country,” Robert Silvers, the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for policy, said in a statement. 

The addition of the three companies brings the total of companies blocked from exporting goods to the U.S. to 30.

Rushan Abbas, the executive director of rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, called the announcement “a pivotal moment in the fight for human rights and justice.”

“The criminal architects behind the policies and model for the Uyghur genocide are being held accountable,” she said.

Edited by Joshua Lipes

Update adds Alim Seytoff to the byline.

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