Already strained relations between China and the United States were further muddied after U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill targeting Beijing’s mass crackdown on ethnic Muslim minorities Wednesday, less than one week after President Donald Trump signed separate human rights legislation on Hong Kong.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long regarded Hong Kong and the far west Xinjiang region as crucial areas for asserting territorial sovereignty, and it has responded with fury to what it considers foreign meddling.
“Xinjiang is China’s Xinjiang,” said a statement from China’s National Ethnic Affairs Commission, echoing another government mantra: “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong.”
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Tensions over the recently passed U.S. bills have cast doubt over the potential for a trade deal between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a 16-month tariff war. Trump said Tuesday that he has “no deadline” for striking an agreement and that he may wait until after next year’s presidential election.
The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act denounces the detention of an estimated 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and others in Xinjiang, home to the predominantly Muslim minority groups. It would require the State Department to evaluate whether Chinese officials would meet the criteria for sanctions for their roles in enacting oppressive policies.
The bill “disregards the facts and mixes up black and white,” said the Foreign Affairs Commission of China’s legislature in one among a slew of strongly worded rebukes from government departments.
“It is regrettable that U.S. Congress has not only turned a blind eye to Xinjiang’s efforts to combat terrorism and protect human rights in accordance with laws and regulations, but also to Xinjiang’s current economic development, social stability, national unity and religious harmony,” the commission said.
Former detainees and their family members have told The Associated Press that they were arbitrarily held in heavily secured, prison-like camps where they were pressured to renounce their faith and express gratitude to the ruling Communist Party. A recent leak of classified Chinese government documents revealed a blueprint for rewiring the thoughts of ethnic minorities who had not committed any crimes.
Beijing says the measures are necessary to combat terrorism and eradicate religious extremism, calling the facilities “vocational training centers” for those who lack employable skills.
China has repeatedly criticized the U.S. for interfering in its affairs, most recently accusing Washington of being a “black hand” that has orchestrated riots in Hong Kong.
After Trump signed bills mandating sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, an annual review of Hong Kong’s favorable trade status and a ban on exporting nonlethal munitions to Hong Kong police, China retaliated Monday by suspending U.S. military ship and aircraft visits to Hong Kong.
It also said it would sanction a number of groups, including Human Rights Watch and the National Endowment for Democracy, that have “performed badly” in regard to the unrest in Hong Kong.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of “one country, two systems,” which promises the city certain democratic rights not afforded to the mainland. The arrests of Hong Kong booksellers and democracy activists in recent years, however, have stoked fears among some residents that the central government is chipping away at their freedoms.
Uighur and Kazakh activists have expressed solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, praising it for resisting the Chinese government. Meanwhile, some Hong Kong protesters have pointed to suppression in Xinjiang as an example of what they fear will ultimately befall their city.
“China will harvest your home like Xinjiang — BE AWARE OR BE NEXT,” read one piece of graffiti at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the site of a dayslong occupation by protesters. Elsewhere in the city, words scrawled by a public street said: “Free HK, Free the Uighur too!”
“The same enemy of both people, the (Chinese Communist Party), and its threat to humanity, brought us together,” Tahir Imin, a Washington-based Uighur activist, said of the Hong Kong protests. “With the support of the free world, the two peoples need to continue their fight and solidarity until the end.”