US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials suspected of being involved in the detention and human rights abuses of millions of Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups.
In a statement describing the “highly repressive campaign” of detention, mass surveillance, “draconian controls” on religious and cultural expression, and coercion, Pompeo announced “visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China.”
“Family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions,” he added.
The statement did not specify how many or which officials would be targeted. A State Department spokesperson said that “visa records are confidential under U.S. law, therefore, we will not discuss or disclose individual applications of this visa policy.”
“The United States 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,” Pompeo wrote. “The United States will continue to review its authorities to respond to these abuses.”
The move comes as the State Department has increased its public condemnation of China’s arbitrary detention of up to two million Uyghurs in “in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”
“Government officials claimed the camps were needed to combat terrorism, separatism, and extremism. International media, human rights organizations, and former detainees reported security officials in the camps abused, tortured, and killed some detainees,” the latest State Department human rights report on China noted. The US hosted and participated in a number of events meant to highlight these abuses during the UN General Assembly.
The visa restrictions also follow the Commerce Department’s blacklisting on Monday of 28 Chinese companies, government offices and security bureaus over their alleged role in facilitating human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
In a statement to CNN Tuesday, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson denounced the visa restrictions, saying “it violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s interests.”
“Xinjiang affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference,” the spokesperson said.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson offered a similar condemnation of the Commerce Department’s action, saying Tuesday that US accusations were “groundless and senseless” and the sanctions on its organizations and companies “seriously violated the basic rules of international relations.”
The actions by the State and Commerce Departments come days before high-level trade talks between the US and China are slated to resume in Washington. State Department officials, speaking to reporters during the UN General Assembly, suggested that the administration sought to separate the religious rights abuses from trade discussions.
“They want to get a trade deal separate in this state from the other controversies that we have with China,” Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told CNN.
“I’d be hesitant to link things. This isn’t the only issue that we’re working with the Chinese on,” assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell said.
CNN’s James Griffiths contributed to this report.