Petitioners with relatives missing or detained in Xinjiang hold up pictures of their loved ones during a press event at the office of the Ata Jurt rights group. Picture: RUSIAN PRYANIKOV/AFP
Petitioners with relatives missing or detained in Xinjiang hold up pictures of their loved ones during a press event at the office of the Ata Jurt rights group. Picture: RUSIAN PRYANIKOV/AFP

Washington — A bipartisan group of US legislators complained to the Trump administration on Monday that its response to rights abuses against China’s Muslim minority has been inadequate months after it said it is looking into imposing sanctions.

“This issue is bigger than just China. It is about demonstrating to strongmen globally that the world will hold them accountable for their actions,” the legislators wrote in a letter to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

The group is led by Eliot Engel, Democratic chair of the House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs, and includes Republican ranking member Ted Yoho.

Pompeo wrote to the committee on September 28 saying his department is looking into a request for sanctions on those responsible for abuses and for controls on exports of technology that facilitates mass detentions and surveillance of ethnic minorities in western China’s Xinjiang region.

“It appears that the administration has taken no meaningful action … and we write today with a renewed sense of urgency on this serious matter,” reads the letter, also signed by Brad Sherman, Democratic chair of the Asia and Pacific subcommittee, and Chris Smith, Republican ranking member of the human rights subcommittee.

The US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, told reporters the issue is “being discussed thoroughly within the administration” but he has no new steps to announce.

Brownback spoke at a Capitol Hill event to mark the formation of the Coalition to Advance Religious Freedom in China, a multifaith group of more than a dozen religious and rights organisations established to campaign against persecution.

A spokesperson for the state department said it remains “deeply disturbed that since April 2017, the Chinese government has detained more than 1-million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslims in internment camps. We will continue to call on China to end these counterproductive policies, free all those arbitrarily detained and cease efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”

China denies the allegations.

US officials said in 2018 the administration was considering sanctions against companies and officials linked to China’s crackdown, including Xinjiang party secretary Chen Quanguo, a member of the Chinese leadership’s powerful politburo.

Sanctions threat

But no action has been forthcoming, with the administration engaged in sensitive negotiations to resolve a trade war between the countries. Pompeo said on Monday he thinks they are “on the cusp” of a deal to end the trade war.

In a November interview with Reuters, China’s ambassador to Washington warned of retaliation if Washington were to impose sanctions on Chen.

The US legislators said it is a particular concern that US companies might be contributing to the Xinjiang persecution, given commercial ties to Chinese tech companies that have profited from a surge in security spending there.

They called for written responses from Pompeo as to whether the US government monitored the use of US technology that could be used for surveillance or detention in Xinjiang and information on any US companies providing such technology.

The letter highlighted a January 31 Reuters report that Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group, co-founded by former US military services contractor Erik Prince, had signed a deal to build a training base in Xinjiang.