US restricts visas for officials linked to Uighur detentions

The Trump administration will impose visa restrictions on Chinese government officials connected to the mass detention of Uighurs in western China, another escalation in tensions between the powers as they prepare for a new round of trade talks.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said China had pursued a “highly repressive campaign” against Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in the region of Xinjiang that included mass detention, high-tech surveillance and “draconian controls” on cultural and religious expression.

“The US calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, release all those arbitrarily detained and cease efforts to coerce members of Chinese Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement announcing the visa restrictions.

The Chinese embassy in Washington responded in a series of angry tweets that accused the US of interfering in China’s internal affairs with “made up pretexts” and a serious violation of “the basic norms governing international relations.”

The imposition of visa restrictions coupled with measures aimed at Chinese surveillance companies unveiled on Monday come as Chinese negotiators are due to arrive in Washington for the latest round of talks aimed at securing a deal to end the trade war between the two economic powers, which has been escalating over the past 18 months.

They also mark the latest shot across the bow of China from the Trump administration, which in late 2017 labelled the country a “revisionist power”, signalling a much tougher stance towards Beijing from Washington.

“It’s hard to believe that these actions are independent from the trade talks,” said Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Maybe President Trump believes this is a way of gaining leverage or he may have concluded that the US is getting nothing out of the Chinese so he might as well as go ahead and be tough.”

“Individuals subject to this visa restriction policy will face more scrutiny when they apply and may be refused visas,” a state department official said.

Mr Pompeo said the measures would apply to Communist party officials “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention” of people from the minority ethnic groups and possibly their relatives. He said it was a follow-on decision from Monday when the US commerce department imposed restrictions on US technology being sold to Chinese companies that are abetting “China’s campaign of surveillance, detention and repression”.

“This is not an administration known for its subtlety and this one-two punch is incredibly provocative and that it’s couched around human rights just makes it all the more inflammatory in Beijing,” said Chris Krueger, a policy analyst at Cowen Washington Research Group. “I struggle to think of a more pessimistic narrative for these talks,” he added.

In recent months, the US has stepped up rhetorical pressure on China over the mass detention of Uighurs. Mr Pompeo recently urged countries to reject requests from Beijing to repatriate Uighurs back to China.

Experts believe the Chinese government has been pushing for the repatriation because it worries that large numbers of Uighurs overseas could be woven into coalitions that would call for more pressure on Beijing.

Roughly 1m of the 24m people in Xinjiang have been subject to extrajudicial detention in recent years. The US and other western governments have criticised the situation as one of the world’s worst ongoing human rights violations. China at first denied the existence of the internment camps, but has since shifted its defence to say that they are “vocational training centres” that are designed to improve economic conditions for ethnic minority groups.

On Monday, Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, said the US would blacklist 28 new Chinese entities because of their role in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. American companies will have to apply for special licences if they want to sell US-made goods to any of the entities, which include the Xinjiang security bureau, 19 of its subordinates and eight technology companies involved in surveillance and artificial intelligence.

Hikvision and Dahua, which make surveillance equipment, were two of the large companies targeted, while a host of smaller start-ups have also found themselves blacklisted.

Earlier this year the US took similar action against Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment giant which has been accused of violating Iran sanctions and stealing US technology. But the latest move drew a particularly sharp reaction from Beijing because it focused on the actions of these organisations within China rather than their activities abroad.

Ely Ratner of the Center for New American Security, a think-tank, said the moves related to Xinjiang were” long overdue” but were not “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in terms of the trade talks because the US and Chinese positions were so distant anyway. “Even absent this particular action the likelihood of a breakthrough deal was negligible.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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