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International relations

US sanctions highest ranking Chinese official yet over Uighur rights

Move comes amid hardening stance against Beijing over coronavirus and Hong Kong

Xinjiang region Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, right, is one of four high-ranking officials blacklisted by the U.S. over alleged human rights abuses against China's Uighur Muslim minority.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on the highest ranking Chinese official yet targeted over alleged human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority, a move likely to further ratchet up tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Washington blacklisted Xinjiang region's Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of China's powerful Politburo, and three other officials. The highly anticipated action followed months of Washington's hostility toward Beijing over China's handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and its tightening grip on Hong Kong.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters after the announcements described Chen as the highest ranking Chinese official ever sanctioned by the United States.

The blacklisting is "no joke," he said. "Not only in terms of symbolic and reputational affect, but it does have real meaning on a person's ability to move around the world and conduct business."

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. But China has denied mistreatment of Uighur Muslims and says the camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to target human rights violators worldwide by freezing any U.S. assets, banning U.S. travel and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.

Sanctions were also imposed on Zhu Hailun, a former deputy party secretary and current deputy secretary of regional legislative body the Xinjiang's People's Congress; Wang Mingshan, the director and Communist Party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; and former party secretary of the bureau Huo Liujun.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was also barring Chen, Zhu, Wang and their immediate families, as well as other unnamed Chinese Communist Party officials, from traveling to the United States.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sponsored legislation signed by U.S. President Donald Trump in June that calls for sanctions over the repression of Uighurs, told Reuters the move was "long overdue" and that more steps were needed.

"For far too long, Chinese officials have not been held accountable for committing atrocities that likely constitute crimes against humanity," Rubio said.

Despite Trump's hardline public remarks about Beijing, former national security adviser John Bolton alleged in his recent book that Trump said Chinese President Xi Jinping should go ahead with building detention camps in Xinjiang and sought Xi's help to win reelection in November.

Trump said in an interview last month he had held off on tougher sanctions on China over Uighur human rights due to concerns such measures would have interfered in trade negotiations with Beijing.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had also raised objections to the Treasury sanctions, especially against a Politburo member, out of concerns they could further damage U.S.-China relations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

"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," Mnuchin said in a statement.

Peter Harrell, a former U.S. official and sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, said Thursday's move may signal a continued shift by the Trump administration of "paying more attention to human rights abuses in China ... after several years of relative neglect."

Chen made his mark swiftly after taking the top post in Xinjiang in 2016, when mass "anti-terror" rallies were held in the region's largest cities involving tens of thousands of paramilitary troops and police. He is widely considered the senior official responsible for the security crackdown in Xinjiang.

The United Nations estimates that more than a million Muslims have been detained in camps in the Xinjiang region.

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