Beijing on Wednesday decried a US decision to restrict visas for Chinese officials linked to the repression of Xinjiang Muslims, and called on Washington to withdraw the measure.
The United States has stepped up its criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in the western region, where rights group say more than one million are held in internment camps.
Washington earlier this week announced the blacklisting of 28 Chinese entities involved in rights violations in Xinjiang, which China has said was based on “groundless” claims.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the visa curbs on Tuesday, urging China to cease its “campaign of repression” in the region and release those interned.
China had until recently denied the camps existed, but later described them as “vocational education centres” where people learn Mandarin and job skills as necessary counter-terrorism measures.
The US is “disregarding the facts, slandering and smearing China on Xinjiang-related issues,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press conference Wednesday, where he said the US actions were guided by “sinister intentions”.
Geng also took issue with the European Parliament for nominating Ilham Tohti — a Uighur scholar serving a life sentence on separatism charges for advocating the rights of Uighurs — to a shortlist for the Sakharov Prize for human rights.
“Under the pretence of human rights, this institution is whitewashing such a separatist supporting violent and terrorist acts,” Geng said.
Last month the Council of Europe awarded its Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize to Tohti for “giving the entire Uighur people a voice”, drawing bitter criticism from the Chinese authorities, who said that even nominating him was effectively “supporting terrorism”.
– ‘Completely futile’ –
In 2017, Xinjiang authorities passed sweeping “anti-extremism” regulations that banned a wide range of behaviours and customs — formalising a regional crackdown on certain Muslim practices.
Growing “abnormal” facial hair was included in the government’s list, as well as wearing robes that cover the whole body and face.
An AFP investigation in June found that at least 30 mosques and religious sites have been destroyed in Xinjiang since 2017.
And in just two years, dozens of cemeteries have been destroyed in the northwest region, according to a new AFP investigation with satellite imagery analysts Earthrise Alliance.
Pompeo in his statement also criticised “pervasive, high-tech surveillance” as part of “highly repressive” Chinese policy in the region.
Xinjiang authorities have rolled out a sweeping surveillance system in the region.
A mobile app called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform collects information from multiple sources, including facial-recognition cameras, wifi sniffers, and home visits in the region, according to Human Rights Watch.
The entities sanctioned by the United States include video surveillance company Hikvision and artificial intelligence firms Megvii Technology and SenseTime.
The blacklist also includes 18 public security bureaus in Xinjiang, a police college and eight businesses.
Geng called the US moves “completely futile” and warned China would take “firm” action against violations of its sovereignty.
He also said China’s commerce ministry would “soon” release its own entity list, which has been in the works for months.
China’s policies are “widely supported by the 25 million people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang”, Geng said.
The heightened US pressure on China’s policies in Xinjiang comes at a tense time for the two countries, which have been locked in a trade war for more than a year.
Trade talks are set to resume on Thursday, with Beijing’s top trade envoy Liu He due to meet US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Asked whether the visa restrictions could impact the talks, Geng said: “We hope that the US can work together with China, meet halfway with us, and push forward consultations in order to make progress, on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.”