WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced sanctions Friday on a powerful government entity and two senior officials who have helped manage it, citing systemic human rights abuses against predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in China’s far northwest.
The sanctions, imposed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, name the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization that plays a central role in the development of the Xinjiang region, and two associated officials, Peng Jiarui and Sun Jinlong. The order is designed to prevent them from accessing American property and the financial system, as well as to ban any economic transactions between them and American companies and citizens.
“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,” Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, said in a statement.
The sanctions most likely will have little or no practical impact on Mr. Peng, the deputy party secretary and commander of the development group, and Mr. Sun, one of its former political commissars. It was not immediately clear what effect they would have on trade and international commerce done by the group, which oversees some state-run companies that export products such as tomato paste.
The group’s direct exports to the United States were worth $43 million in 2018, the most recent year for which detailed official data were available. Much more of its crops and other raw materials may end up processed by Chinese companies for exports that are not counted under the group’s numbers.
In particular, the group is a big cotton grower. Last year, it produced two million metric tons of cotton, about a third of China’s total production, according to official statistics. In 2018, its direct imports from the United States were worth $102 million.
Ties between the United States and China have been fraying as the Trump administration takes an increasingly hard line on China’s handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak, its growing repression in Hong Kong, its maritime claims and miliary expansionism in the South China Sea, its efforts to export 5G next-generation telecommunications equipment and its systemic abuses of largely Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has carried out a campaign of mass detentions in Xinjiang, placing one million or more members of the Uighur ethnic group and others into large internment camps that aim to indoctrinate the detainees with propaganda about the Communist Party and eradicate core parts of their Muslim and Uighur identities.
From 2018 onward, senior administration officials debated whether and how to punish China for the abuses.
China hawks in the administration blamed Mr. Trump and top economic advisers, including Mr. Mnuchin, for holding back on sanctions in order to avoid jeopardizing trade talks with China and to cozy up to Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. But now, as the pandemic roils the United States and endangers the president’s prospects of re-election, Mr. Trump has begun to sour on maintaining cordial relations with China, and the hawks have greater leeway to pursue tougher actions on China and to try to set the two nations on a long-term course for confrontation.
Mr. Trump’s campaign strategists have also urged him to attack China in an attempt to turn the spotlight away from the president’s failures on the pandemic and the economy.
“Today’s designations are the latest U.S. government action in an ongoing effort to deter human rights abuse in the Xinjiang region,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the most vocal of the China hawks, said in a statement on Friday.
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps was founded in 1954 as a group entwined with the People’s Liberation Army that would oversee the deployment of large numbers of ethnic Han citizens, many of them military veterans, to Xinjiang to build farms, factories and towns that would allow China to consolidate control of the important border region and the many ethnic minority groups there.
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As of 2009, the group, which reports directly to Beijing, had an annual output of goods and services of $7 billion, and the settlements and entities overseen by the bingtuan, or soldiers corps, included five cities, 180 farming communities and 1,000 companies. They also run their own courts, universities and media organizations.
On July 9, the United States imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials associated with Xinjiang policy, including Chen Quanguo, the party chief of the region and a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s 25-member ruling Politburo. That move was largely symbolic, but it sent a stronger message than an October 2019 action in which the administration placed 28 Chinese companies and police departments deemed to be associated with Xinjiang abuses on a blacklist that forbids American companies from selling technology and other goods to them without a license. At that time, the State Department also announced visa restrictions on some Chinese officials.
On July 20, the Trump administration added 11 new Chinese entities, including companies supplying major American brands like Apple, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, to the list that restricts them from purchasing American products, saying the firms were complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. That brought to 48 the total number of Chinese companies and security units on the U.S. entity list for violations related to Xinjiang.
On July 1, the administration warned businesses with supply chains that run through Xinjiang to consider the reputational, economic and legal risks of doing so.
The Associated Press reported on July 3 that agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York had seized 13 tons of hair weaves and other beauty products suspected of having been made by detainees in a Xinjiang internment camp. The products were worth an estimated $800,000. In May, the agency conducted a seizure of similar products that were being imported by companies in Georgia and Texas, to be sold to salons and individuals across the United States.
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Sydney, Australia.