THERE IS NO other way to read the United States’ decision to go ahead with imposing sanctions on a Politburo member as anything but a marked deterioration in relations between the two countries. However, it fits squarely with Washington’s increasingly harsh condemnations of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Chen Quanguo, the Xinjiang provincial party secretary, whose position in the Politburo makes him the most senior Party leader to be so sanctioned by the United States, Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee, and the current and former directors of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, Wang Mingshan and Huo Liujun, face a range of sanctions. The Trump administration charges them to be responsible for human rights violations against the predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.
It is now illegal in the United States to conduct financial transactions with the four. Their US-based assets are frozen, although it is unclear how extensive these are. All save for Huo may not enter the United States, a restriction that also applies to their families. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says other unnamed Party officials will also be banned from entering the United States. The Xinjiang Public Security Bureau as an institution is also sanctioned. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps may suffer the same fate.
The sanctions are being imposed under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which affords the administration broad authority to impose human-rights sanctions on foreign officials. The US president could have imposed the sanctions months ago but was reluctant to do so while they could complicate the completion and implementation of his Phase One trade deal, signed in January.
Beijing has repeatedly rejected international allegations of abuses of Uighurs in Xinjiang and held fast to the line that its policies there and in Hong Kong are internal matters in which the United States has no place to interfere. However, the timing of the sanctions’ announcement, coming in the wake of Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling for better bilateral ties, will be taken as a slap in the face — or perhaps a biting off of a hand holding an olive branch — that cannot be left unanswered.
Next week, the US president is expected to sign into law legislation that will give him sweeping sanction powers over officials accused of undermining Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ semi-autonomy and over banks and state entities that do business with them. Imposition of them will likely be driven by the US election timetable, but there will be some uncomfortable weeks for bankers in Hong Kong deciding where it will pay for their loyalties to lie.