BEIJING — U.S. lawmakers revived a bill Thursday that could pave the way for sanctions against China over its mass internment of Muslim ethnic minorities in the western region of Xinjiang.
The Senate bill, which would create positions within the State Department, FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies to study issues related to the ongoing internment program, represents a steady escalation of pressure from Washington over a Chinese campaign that has held as many as 1 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, in extrajudicial indoctrination centers.
The introduction of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) comes at a time when sentiment toward Beijing in Washington is hardening — across political parties and branches of government — over issues ranging from trade disputes and technology theft to geopolitical competition and human rights.
A similar bill was introduced in November but was not taken up in the Senate before the congressional session ran out.
In the past two years, China has established a network of indoctrination centers in Xinjiang that operate outside its courts and have systematically interned up to 1 million people, according to the United Nations. The detentions have been accompanied by efforts to dilute Uighur language and culture as well as all-encompassing digital surveillance and collection of DNA on a practically unprecedented scale.
Beijing has bristled at international scrutiny and the threat of U.S. sanctions over the program, calling it an example of American overreach into its domestic affairs. After initially denying the detention centers’ existence, China in October began rolling out a vigorous defense of the program as a counterterrorism measure to purge Islamist extremism from a vast, unstable territory bordering Central Asia.
As part of the Senate bill, which is accompanied by a similar measure in the House, the FBI would be tasked with investigating whether Uighurs living in the United States have been intimidated by Chinese state security in its globe-spanning efforts over the past two years to repatriate them for indoctrination.
The bill also reiterates calls for financial and travel sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials involved in the detention program, steps that Rubio has previously called on the Treasury Department to pursue.
The State Department is leading a U.S. interagency effort to develop policies in response to the Xinjiang crackdown, Rubio said in a statement. “The time to act is now,” he said.
U.S.-China relations are fraying on several fronts despite fitful progress in trade negotiations. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that federal prosecutors could soon indict China’s Huawei conglomerate on charges of stealing trade secrets, adding a fresh allegation against a company that is already in U.S. crosshairs for its alleged deals with Iran.
Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses introduced legislation that would ban the sale of U.S. chips to Huawei and ZTE, a prospect that could cripple the operations of the two globally successful Chinese firms. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the measure American “hysteria” and said it represented the “arrogance” and lack of self-confidence of the bill’s sponsors.
In a statement, Menendez said the Uighur human rights bill was part of a broader, tougher U.S. tack against Beijing.
“This legislation is an acknowledgment that we are now in a new era of strategic competition with China,” he said. “I am proud to help lead this important effort so we don’t abandon our values and simply turn a blind eye as a million Muslims are unjustly imprisoned and forced into labor camps by an autocratic Chinese regime.”
Amid growing criticism from a coalition of 15 Western countries, the United Nations and hundreds of scholars worldwide, Chinese officials this month invited media and diplomats, almost all from majority-Muslim countries, on tightly managed tours of Xinjiang to show what they said were happy Uighurs singing and receiving education voluntarily.
The government-sponsored tour, which excluded all Western countries, suggested that China may eventually invite United Nations inspectors to Xinjiang.
China said in January it would welcome a U.N. team to inspect the region if it abided by Chinese law and procedures and was “unbiased.”