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International relations

Congress presses Trump to sanction China over human rights

Rubio-led commission says conditions continue to worsen

Riot police pour water on the face of an anti-government protester who was pepper-sprayed while getting detained after an anti-parallel-trading protest at Sheung Shui, a border town in Hong Kong, on Jan. 5.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- With the partial Sino-American trade deal yet to be signed, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and other China watchers in Congress are reminding the Trump administration of Beijing's increasingly autocratic bent.

"Rising authoritarianism in China is one of the most important challenges of the 21st century," wrote the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China in its 2019 annual human rights report out Wednesday. "In the coming decades, global challenges will require a constructive Chinese role that respects and elevates the voices of over 1.3 billion people in China instead of suppressing them." The commission is led by Republican Rubio and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern.

The 300-plus-page document includes sections on freedom of expression, workers' rights, criminal justice, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, population control, women, North Korean refugees in China, public health, the environment, business and human rights, and developments in Hong Kong as well as Macao.

"Human rights and rule of law conditions in China have continued to worsen this past year," the commission said.

On human rights violations, the report cites cases of detained Chinese citizens, such as labor advocates Fu Changguo and Wu Guijun, and internment camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

"Chinese technology firms SenseTime, Megvii, CloudWalk, Yitu, and Tiandy all reportedly sold technology to Chinese authorities for use in surveillance systems," it notes. "The government uses this technology to surveil rights advocates and others the government views as threats."

The report recommends imposing human rights sanctions against Chinese businesses and officials involved in the internment and surveillance of Uighurs.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio questions witnesses before a 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "worldwide threats." Rubio co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.   © REUTERS

The CECC notes the campaign by internet technology company workers against the "exploitative work hours" known as "996": 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. What is now the two-child policy also comes in for criticism, along with pollution, gender discrimination, food and vaccine safety, and suppression of LGBTQ people's rights.

On Hong Kong, the commission said it "observed a further erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy and fundamental freedoms under the 'one country, two systems' framework."

It encourages congressional members and administration officials to "reassess whether Hong Kong authorities are 'legally competent,' in accordance with the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of

1992," that awards Hong Kong a special status on trade that is different from the mainland.

The CECC submits the report to the president and Congress annually as required by law, also maintaining a database of political prisoners in China. The just-released 2019 edition covers the period from August 2018 to August 2019. The CECC makes recommendations on China strategy.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle have pressured U.S. President Donald Trump to take a firmer stance against Beijing amid the trade war. Trump has generally avoided condemning China over Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

The administration "should develop talking points for U.S. Government officials -- including those engaged in trade negotiations -- that consistently link freedoms of press, speech, and association to U.S. and Chinese interests," the report said.

The tit-for-tat trade war has damaged the world economy, and the on-and-off negotiations have dragged on. American and Chinese officials announced the "phase one" deal in December.

Trump tweeted Dec. 31 that the deal will be signed on Jan. 15 at the White House and has prioritized lifting exports to China. But official word on the timing has yet to come from Beijing.

The CECC report recommends that Trump issue a policy "directive to develop a comprehensive strategy" when dealing with the Chinese government. The policy should include "expanding efforts within the U.S. government to counter disinformation, coercive political influence operations and censorship efforts" from Beijing.

The report says the U.S. should address the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and hold Chinese officials accountable by updating the Tiananmen Sanctions and Tibetan Policy Act, setting conditions for Chinese companies' access to American capital markets, enacting the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 -- which Trump signed into law this past November -- promoting transparency in university and think tank funding, protecting North Korean refugees, calling on allies to counter China's rise in artificial intelligence, and dealing with foreign influence campaigns in the U.S.

The issues in the 2019 CECC report are mostly similar to those in the previous year's report. But its calls to promote transparency in university funding, address digital authoritarianism, and protect North Korean refugees are new this year.

"U.S. foreign policy must prioritize the promotion of universal human rights and the rule of law in China, not only to respect and protect the basic dignity of the people of China, but to better promote security and prosperity for all of humanity," it says.

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