WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump is poised to sign a measure that would punish Chinese officials for imprisoning more than one million Muslims in internment camps, as he looks to rebuke Beijing over its crackdown on Hong Kong and its response to the coronavirus.
Congress has already addressed the issue of persecution in Xinjiang in a bill that passed with broad bipartisan support. It would require Trump to sanction any officials found responsible for oppressing Muslims in China’s far west and revoke their visas.
“We fully anticipate within a matter of days that the president will sign this,” said Rep Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Trump said he would hold a news conference later on Friday where he would announce what the administration would do “with respect to China” after the country moved to pass national security legislation expected to curb freedoms in Hong Kong.
“We are not happy with what’s happened,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question about whether the US would remain in the “phase one” trade deal he signed with Chinese officials in January.
Trump’s top economic aide Larry Kudlow told Fox News on Friday morning that the US is “furious” with what China has done “in recent days, weeks and months”.
Trump has shown little interest in human rights violations in China. But the national security law and his complaints about the country’s handling of the virus have escalated tensions between the world’s two largest economies, and prompted the White House to examine ways to retaliate.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Thursday that Trump hadn’t reviewed the congressional legislation because it hadn’t been forwarded to him. He said on Tuesday that he would “look at it very strongly.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Hong Kong has effectively lost its autonomy and no longer warrants special treatment under US law. The declaration opens the door for Trump to impose penalties ranging from modest sanctions to revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status with the US.
Pompeo also indicated Trump was considering expelling Chinese graduate students believed to be affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army and related entities. Chinese students “shouldn't be here in our schools spying”, the secretary of state said.
China pushed back on Friday, calling US actions over Hong Kong “purely nonsense” and repeating that the matter was an internal affair.
Beijing urges the US to stop its “frivolous political manipulation”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing, reiterating Beijing’s support for Hong Kong police in upholding the law.
The countries have traded insults and blame for the coronavirus pandemic, which began in the Chinese province of Hubei. But the illness has killed at least 100,000 Americans, far more deaths than China has reported, and Trump has sought to shift blame to Beijing as his administration’s handling of the crisis has come under intense criticism.
The human rights measure passed the House on Wednesday on a vote of 413-1 and passed the Senate by unanimous consent. It condemns the internment of Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region of China. The legislation calls for closing the camps where they are being held.
Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, said the bill “blatantly smears” China and interferes in its internal affairs.
Signing the bill would mark a shift for Trump, who has been reluctant in the past to retaliate against China over human rights.
But virus-related tensions between the two countries have converged with growing concern among China hawks within the administration over the Beijing government’s crackdown on free expression and religious minorities.
Before the pandemic, Trump had been loath to denounce China in order to preserve his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the trade deal. Trump, for example, only offered lukewarm support for pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong last year as the deal was being negotiated.
But the president recently indicated that the virus has overshadowed trade.
“I feel differently now about that deal than I did three months ago,” Trump said during a May 19 cabinet meeting. “And we’ll see what all happens. But it’s been a very disappointing situation. Very disappointing thing happened with China because the plague flowed in. And that wasn’t supposed to happen, and it could have been stopped.”
Decisions such as imposing tariffs or visa restrictions against Chinese officials over the government’s crackdown of Hong Kong have prompted internal debate over how far the US should go.
“Hong Kong is clearly losing its freedom, China is now breaking longstanding rules and laws and treaties, that means Hong Kong will be treated differently,” Kudlow said Thursday on CNBC, adding that the country “has made a huge mistake”.
But the Uighur bill may pose less political risk for the president. China hawks and human-rights groups have begun to express frustration that the administration has been reluctant to respond to China’s abuses and take broader actions to bring manufacturing back to the US.