China ‘could target trade talks and US companies’ over Xinjiang human rights bill

Shi Jiangtao

Chinese government advisers have suggested taking tough action against the United States such as postponing trade talks and targeting American companies after the US House of Representatives passed a bill tightening human rights scrutiny on Xinjiang.

The recommendations came on the heels of the House’s near-unanimous backing on Tuesday of a strongly worded bill to mete out sanctions against senior Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The vote on the Uygur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Act was taken less than a week after US President Donald Trump signed into law legislation backing Hong Kong protesters.

Despite widespread claims about mass internment of some one million Uygurs and members of other largely Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, Beijing insists that its activities in the far western region are an internal sovereign issue and a legitimate response to the threat of religious extremism.

Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre on American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to the State Council, said Beijing needed to act quickly and resolutely to push back against Washington’s offensive and confrontational China policy.

“Trump apparently thinks he can hurt China on Hong Kong and Xinjiang while still winning the trade war with a favourable deal. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “If we cannot do something as soon as possible, rather than exchanging verbal barbs, to inflict real pain on Trump and deal heavy blows to his unrealistic confidence, we may have to endure further, greater pain.”

Shi said that although it was in Beijing’s interests to cut a deal with the US to end the damaging trade war, the leadership should first consider calling a halt to the year-long trade talks.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch and retaliation will inevitably be painful. But if we don’t act swiftly, it’s almost certain that we will suffer greater pain down the road,” he said.

Former officials and other analysts have urged Beijing to hit back harder than it did to Trump’s signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. On Monday, Beijing responded to the move by banning US military vessels and aircraft from visiting the city and sanctioning US-based non-government organisations.

The Uygur act is a stronger version of legislation that angered Beijing when it passed the Senate in September. The earlier bill asked the US secretary of state to consider punishing Chinese officials over Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang based on the Global Magnitsky Act.

But the House bill calls on Trump to impose sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party boss in Xinjiang and a Politburo member.

In China on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the latest bill on Xinjiang would “inflict some costs” and have an impact on China-US ties and “cooperation in key areas”.

“A lot of people have issues with the US’ hegemonic acts and stupid behaviour and have floated ideas for us … As to what action China will take, I think you can wait. The costs will come sooner or later,” she said, without elaborating.

The Chinese foreign ministry summoned the top US official in Beijing for political affairs, William Klein, to lodge a protest.

The foreign affairs committees of both the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the top advisory body, also lashed out at the US lawmakers’ “malicious attack” on the human rights conditions in Xinjiang and “groundless accusations” against Beijing’s deradicalisation and anti-terrorism efforts.

The Xinjiang regional government and China’s anti-terrorism office defended the detention facilities, saying they were training centres used to combat extremism.

Nevertheless, Beijing needs to come up with a stronger response to the American legislation, according to Wei Jianguo, former vice-minister at the Ministry of Commerce.

Nationalist tabloid the Global Times quoted Wei as saying that China could put US companies on an unreliable entity list and impose visa restrictions.

Shi said Beijing’s options could include, but were not limited to, reconsidering its cooperation with Washington on Iran and North Korea, or even recalling the Chinese ambassador to the US and downgrading bilateral ties.

“We need to prove that Americans have been wrong to assume that China will never link touchy issues that have remained separate and Beijing cannot afford to fight back in a substantial way,” he said.

But Huang Jing, a US specialist at Beijing Language and Culture University’s Institute of International and Regional Studies, said Beijing should remain cool-headed and act with great caution as emotions ran high.

“Although it’s true that our bilateral ties are deteriorating at a rapid pace, we have to say that these issues are not unexpected and we know too well that the US Congress and many senior US administration officials are determined to force China into an early stand-off before Beijing is fully prepared. If we don’t act proportionally, we will fall into their traps which we most probably will regret later,” he said.

Observers said the bill would not have a significant impact on Xinjiang officials, given that most would not visit the US, but businesspeople working with artificial intelligence and surveillance companies with business interests in Xinjiang could be targeted.

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the bill sent a signal to Beijing that abuses would have consequences.

“The response from international communities has been inadequate so far given the severity of the abuse. We hope to see targeted sanctions being imposed on officials in Xinjiang where there is at least a reputational cost,” Wang said, adding that the bill would encourage governments and diplomats around the world to step up the pressure.

“The … sanctions might seem to have little impact on the lives of the abusers but it is sending the right signal to those who are [responsible].”

Adam Ni, co-editor of China Neican, a China analysis newsletter, said the passage of the bill indicated that the US was increasingly willing to use different levers of power to confront China.

“Both bills are quite important especially in the juncture in the bilateral relations as well as the domestic debate in the US on how to respond to China. There’s an increasing sentiment among elites in Washington that China policy needs to change, the US needs to devise an effective response to China’s challenge,” he said.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau and Kinling Lo

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