A bipartisan group of 17 members of Congress reportedly sent a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting they impose sanctions on China in response to the mass arrest and detention of Muslims in western Xinjiang province, where they are subject to torture in “political re-education camps.”
China’s atheist Communist Party under leader Xi Jinping has launched a nationwide campaign to stifle the spread of religions, most prominently targeting Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Xinjiang is home to China’s Muslim-majority Uighur minority population, which Beijing has argued pose a terrorist threat because they consider themselves a Turkic people and many continue practicing their faith despite pressure from the government to give it up.
The State Department first reported in its annual religious freedom report this year that China has established sprawling labor and torture camps for Muslims in the region, where they are forced to consume and memorize communist propaganda, express loyalty to Xi Jinping, and eat pork as a sign that they have abandoned their faith. Subsequent reports indicate that Muslims are being preemptively arrested and placed in these camps without any indication of dissident opinions.
According to ABC News, the group of Congressmen are urging that the Department of the Treasury use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals and corporations that have participated in the creation of the labor camps and the growing repression in Xinjiang.
“Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored,” the letter reportedly reads. “Given the gravity of the situation, and the severity and scope of the rights abuses being perpetrated, we urge you to apply Global Magnitsky sanctions, and consider additional measures, against senior Chinese Government and Communist Party officials who oversee these repressive policies.”
“No Chinese official or business complicit in what is happening in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region] should profit from access to the United States or the U.S. financial system,” the note continues.
Among the members signing the letter are Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Smith and Rubio are the chairmen of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
The letter listed several high-ranking Communist Party officials in Xinjiang, including regional Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, and corporations like Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Zhejiang Dahua Technology as being worthy of sanctions because they have organized the crackdown or participated in organizing the logistics necessary to carry it out. The corporations, which manufacture surveillance equipment, stand accused of helping the Chinese government by providing cameras and other equipment used to spy on the nation’s Uighur population. The evidence gathered from this espionage is what results in re-education camp arrests.
Outside of the camps, China has installed an intricate surveillance system throughout Xinjiang and passed a law ordering all cars in Xinjiang to carry GPS trackers that let the government know where they are at all times.
Congress has already declared both of the surveillance equipment companies mentioned national security threats, banning the U.S. military from buying their products under the recently passed John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. In response, Hikvision has begun assembling an extensive lobbying network in Washington, according to a report in the Daily Beast.
The Wall Street Journal noted on Wednesday that neither the corporations identified nor the Chinese Foreign Ministry had responded to a request for comment on the letter at press time.
The letter comes about four months after reports suggested that the Trump administration was already considering sanctions on China for the situation in Xinjiang. At the time, observers described the camps as “mind transformation centers,” intended to intimidate Uighurs into full control by the U.S. government. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Laura Stone mentioned the Magnitsky Act as a potential avenue of action at the time for a response to China; both Rubio and Smith had also begun urging the government to consider such a move.
The State Department revealed in a report that month that Communist Party officials had launched “a concentrated re-education campaign to combat what it deemed to be separatism” that “resulted in the disappearance, jailing, or forced attendance at re-education classes of tens of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.”
The camps came months after Beijing-linked officials imposed several public restrictions on Muslims. Shopkeepers are forced to sell alcohol and cigarettes, a violation of Islamic law, or Sharia. Individuals wearing Muslim garb or beards are not allowed on public transportation. Muslims cannot publicly fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Human rights advocates noted additionally the intrusive nature of the surveillance. In labor camps, Muslims are forced to eat pork as a way of separating them from their religion. They must listen to 24 hours straight of communist propaganda in their headphones or face strict punishment. Outside of the camp, officials enter and exit homes as they please, monitoring families’ behavior and ensuring that they only use copies of the Quran approved by Beijing.