The Trump administration on Thursday put visa and asset sanctions on several Chinese officials — including Politburo member Chen Quanguo — for what it says has been their role in "gross violations of human rights" in China's far western region of Xinjiang.
The move comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are at their worst in decades and is likely to anger Beijing, potentially leading to similar sanctions from China on American officials.
Chen, the ruling Communist Party's top official in Xinjiang, has overseen a harsh persecution of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in the name of combating terrorism since he was posted to the region in 2016. Critics accuse the government of severe rights abuses in Xinjiang, with invasive surveillance, mass extrajudicial detentions, forced sterilization and abortions and mandatory birth control.
The move marked the first time since the U.S. established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 that Washington has sanctioned a member of China's elite Politburo, comprising the party's top two dozen officials, say scholars of Chinese politics.
In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Chen and two other Xinjiang officials — the party's political and legal affairs chief Zhu Hailun and police boss Wang Mingshan — were now ineligible for entry into the United States. Their immediate families were also barred.
Pompeo said the State Department was placing additional visa restrictions on other, unnamed Communist Party officials "believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the unjust detention or abuse of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang."
In a coordinated statement, the Treasury said it was "building upon" the Global Magnitsky Act in sanctioning Chen, Zhu and Wang. It was also sanctioning the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, or police, and the former party leader of the Xinjiang police, Huo Liujun.
Any assets they own in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. entities "are blocked," it said. Transactions involving any of their property or interests in the United States, or involving Americans, are prohibited.
"The United States is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.
The Chinese Embassy did not answer NPR's calls and emails for comment about the sanctions.
Jude Blanchette, an expert in Chinese politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the sanctions were symbolic but significant.
"The sanctions are unlikely to have any practical impact on the Chinese officials, as they undoubtedly have the bulk of their wealth in domestic assets, yet by targeting China's senior-most officials, the U.S. is sending an extraordinarily strong signal to Beijing," he said.