This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday sanctioned a key paramilitary group in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and two of its current and former officials, in the latest bid by the Trump administration to end rights violations in the region.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), as well as Sun Jinlong, the XPCC’s former political commissar, and Peng Jiarui, its current deputy party secretary and commander, “for their connection to serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” the agency said in a statement.
The sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act block the XPCC, which employs some 12 percent of the region’s population and produces nearly one-third of China’s cotton, and the two current and former officials from access to the U.S. financial system. They also restrict Sun and Peng from traveling to the U.S.
Among the abuses cited by the Treasury Department are reports of “mass arbitrary detention” in the region, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
“As previously stated, the United States is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The new sanctions are the latest in a series of measures the Trump administration has rolled out in recent weeks against China.
Washington and Beijing have been embroiled in a tit-for-tat exchange over issues including trade, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the autonomy of Hong Kong, territorial claims in the South China Sea, and ethnic rights that has seen bilateral relations reach their lowest point in four decades.
In a statement addressing Friday’s sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China’s rights violations in the XUAR “rank as the stain of the century,” and slammed the XPCC as “directly involved” in implementing measures that include the surveillance, detention, and indoctrination of Muslims in the region.
“Today’s designations are the latest U.S. government action in an ongoing effort to deter human rights abuse in the Xinjiang region,” Pompeo said.
“We call on all countries to join us in condemning the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) heinous abuse of the human rights of its own citizens, affecting countless families across the world.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—a bipartisan, federal entity that makes policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State, and Congress—welcomed the Treasury’s designation of the XPCC.
“For years, we have advocated for sanctioning the XPCC,” USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel said in a statement, calling the announcement “a significant step” even beyond sanctions announced earlier this month against senior CCP officials deemed responsible for abuses in the XUAR.
“The XPCC is essentially a parallel government in Xinjiang and has been directly involved in implementing the surveillance, mass detention, and forced labor of Uyghurs.”
USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer said the latest round of sanctions “show that the U.S. government is increasingly able to identify and target those Chinese entities most responsible for religious freedom abuses against Uyghur and other Muslims.”
“Communist China can no longer hide its religious freedom abuses from the world,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Xinjiang, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, who is also the current first political commissar of the XPCC.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, was followed by similar sanctions against Chinese officials seen to be responsible for recent heavy restrictions on the autonomy of Hong Kong.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded with retaliatory sanctions targeting several republican lawmakers, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China advisory panel.
In the latest back-and-forth, the U.S. last week ordered China to shutter its consulate in Houston citing concerns over espionage, prompting China to demand that the U.S. close its consulate in Chengdu over similar allegations.
‘Symbol of colonialism’
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), applauded the sanctions as being “of historical significance.”
“The [XPCC] is a symbol of Chinese colonialism … [that] has violently wrested away the most fertile lands and water resources from the people of East Turkestan,” said Isa, using the name Uyghurs prefer for their homeland.
“It has also exploited the Uyghur people and used them as forced labor, resulting in their abject poverty.”
The XPCC, or “bingtuan,” is a quasi-military organization comprised of 14 divisions made up of dozens of regiments that furthers the CCP’s policies of economic development in the XUAR through resource extraction and an emphasis on subordination to central planning. It controls interests that comprise nearly 17 percent of Xinjiang’s economy.
The Treasury Department said Friday that the XPCC had been designated for being controlled by, or for having acted on behalf of, Chen Quanguo, and for helping to implement his policies in the region.
Isa called the XPCC a “criminal organization” that the central government has used to “crush the political, economic, and cultural rights” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
China’s Foreign Ministry had yet to comment on the latest sanctions at the time of publishing, but the move is likely to lead to retaliatory measures from Beijing.