President Trump signed a measure Wednesday to potentially sanction Chinese officials for their role in interning ethnic Uighurs amid new claims by former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump told President Xi Jinping he approved of China’s construction of large-scale camps to forcibly reeducate Muslim minorities.

The new Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which passed the Senate and House unanimously, drew a furious response from Beijing on Thursday during a delicate moment, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was meeting in Hawaii with Communist Party foreign policy director Yang Jiechi.

The network of detention centers in China’s far west, where more than a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui were at one point believed to be held beginning in 2017, has been condemned by the United Nations and other observers as a gross violation of human rights that goes far beyond what China describes as a deradicalization campaign.

In a forthcoming memoir, Bolton describes a 2019 meeting between Trump and Xi in Japan in which Xi defended China’s construction of the camps — and Trump responded by telling Xi it was “exactly the right thing to do” as he sought to close a trade deal with the Chinese, according to an advance copy of Bolton’s book obtained by The Washington Post.

Trump also “pleaded” with Xi to help ensure he would win reelection in 2020, Bolton alleged.

Trump signed the Uighur bill without a ceremony Wednesday as reports of Bolton’s account emerged. Trump later told the Wall Street Journal that his signing the legislation proved he was in fact tough on China and that Bolton was a “liar.”

China’s Foreign Ministry immediately responded to express “strong indignation” that the law interfered with China’s domestic affairs. The Uighur Act “stigmatized Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism, anti-secession, and deradicalization measures,” the Chinese statement said. It warned the United States of unspecified “consequences” as retribution.

Underscoring the profound differences between the two governments as relations deteriorate sharply, the Chinese and Americans offered divergent accounts of the topics they discussed in the seven-hour meeting of their top diplomats at Hickam Air Force Base near Honolulu.

The Chinese readout said Yang expressed China’s willingness to work with the United States but issued stern hands-off warnings about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims as its territory. Yang accused the U.S. government of “double standards” when it came to criticizing what he described as anti-extremism measures in Xinjiang.

“It is hoped that the U.S. and China will go hand in hand, earnestly implement the important consensus of the two heads of state, and push the relations between the two countries back to the track of coordination, cooperation and stability,” Yang was quoted as saying.

In Washington, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for Asia, complained that the Chinese had not been “forthcoming.” While the two sides discussed a host of issues at dispute, he would not say whether any agreements had been reached, and said it will take weeks to determine whether the talks were productive.

“We look for not just words but deeds,” he said, suggesting Beijing should reconsider new security laws China is imposing on Hong Kong.

Asked whether the Chinese had offered any proposal Washington would consider “reasonable,” Stilwell complained that the Chinese had released a “very one-sided” version of the talks and Pompeo made the U.S. position “very clear.”

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers and Uighurs celebrated the new law signed by Trump.

“It’s a great day for the Uighur people that for the first time a legislative mandate has been put in place to protect their rights when they are facing an existential threat in China,” said Nury Turkel, a Uighur American lawyer recently nominated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

This is a moment for Trump “to demonstrate his commitment to promoting religious freedom in China,” Turkel added. He called on the president to “follow through” with targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the camps.

The act, introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), requires the U.S. government to compile a report about the extent of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang and provide potential individual targets for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. The legislation gives the White House leeway to decide whether it would follow through with sanctions.

Zumrat Dawut was placed in an internment camp for Uighur minorities in Xinjiang and was forcibly sterilized, but she made it out of China. (The Washington Post)

Rubio said Wednesday that Trump took a “historic step” in support of Uighur Muslims, but he did not mention Bolton’s revelations. Democrats, meanwhile, seized on the disclosures to accuse Trump of not being tough enough on China, even though the president’s team has made confronting Beijing a plank of his reelection campaign since the coronavirus outbreak.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has introduced a number of proposals targeting China, including measures that would punish officials who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and penalize the telecommunications firm Huawei, accused Trump and Republican senators of blocking his legislation.

“John Bolton has ripped away the mask,” Van Hollen said. “President Trump has refused to take meaningful action on Russia, China and North Korea in order to curry their support for his reelection.”

Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.