US mulls sanctions on China over Uighur Muslim crackdown
The State Department on Tuesday expressed concern following reports of mass detentions of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims, which has prompted international outcry.
"We're deeply troubled by the worsening crackdown, not just on Uighurs (but also) Kazakhs, other Muslims in that region of China," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a news briefing.
She acknowledged the State Department had received a letter from a bipartisan group of US lawmakers last month asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions on a number of Chinese officials accused of involvement in the internment of the Muslim minority.
Those included Chen Quanguo, Communist Party chief in Xinjiang and also a member of the Party's politburo.
Comment: The Uighur Muslim crisis is worse than you think
US congressional sources told Reuters discussions have escalated within the US government over economic sanctions in response to the allegations.
Any such move on human rights grounds would be a rare step by the Trump administration against China. The US is currently in the midst of a trade war with Beijing while at the same time seeking its assistance in a standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons.
A US official said the idea of sanctions was still in the discussion stage, according to Reuters, and one of the congressional sources said a decision did not appear imminent.
Sanctions being sought by lawmakers would target Chinese companies involved in building detention camps and creating surveillance systems to track Uighurs, according to one of the congressional sources.
"We have a lot of tools at our disposal. But I'm not going to get ahead of any potential activity that the US government may take," Nauert said. "We're not going to preview any sanctions that may or may not happen."
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project tweeted a photo of activist Dolkun Isa, president of World Uyghur Congress, at the White House on Monday, adding: "A meeting with White House officials today provided much-needed encouragement for Uyghur human-rights advocates."
China has denied allegations that one million of its mostly Muslim Uighur minority are being held in internment camps.
A Chinese official told a UN human rights committee in Geneva in August that tough security measures in Xinjiang were necessary to combat extremism and terrorism, but did not target any specific ethnic group or restrict religious freedoms.
China has branded reports of such camps "completely untrue", saying that the "education and training centres" to which "minor criminals" are assigned serve merely "to assist in their rehabilitation and reintegration".
But multiple NGOs and China experts believe the reality is far more sinister, saying accounts from former detainees and official documents point to a massive programme of political and cultural indoctrination.
Last year, China banned "abnormally long" beards and Muslim veils in Xinjiang - which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan - and ordered all car owners in the region to install GPS tracking devices.