People buy food under Chinese national flags in the Old City in Kashgar in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China.
Thomas Peter | Reuters
The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation calling for sanctions against Chinese officials for the detention and torture of Uighur Muslims in the country’s western region of Xinjiang as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate.
The legislation was approved by a vote of 413-1 after passing overwhelmingly in the Senate earlier this month. It will now head to President Donald Trump, who has not said whether he intends to sign it into law.
The vote was the first to take place under temporary rules established this month to allow representatives to cast their ballots by proxy, as a precaution against the spreading coronavirus. Republicans have brought a suit against Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenging proxy voting as unconstitutional.
The vote comes just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo targeted Beijing over its efforts to tamp down on dissent in Hong Kong, announcing that the State Department no longer viewed Hong Kong as autonomous and reiterating U.S. support for anti-government protesters there.
China has warned that it will retaliate against any sanctions imposed and denies the allegations of abuse inside its reeducation camps, which are believed to house as many as a million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups.
The bill passed on Wednesday would give the president 180 days to put together a list of Chinese officials responsible for abuses. Those officials would then face sanctions, though Trump could exempt certain individuals if he claims that the exemption is in the national interest.
The legislation resembles a measure that passed the House 407-1 last year. It cites several Chinese officials by name, including Chen Quanguo, the official responsible for overseeing the camps, and Zhu Hailun, who has been labeled “Xinjiang’s architect of mass detention.“
The human rights legislation comes as the U.S.-China relationship face strains on several other fronts.
Earlier Wednesday, Pompeo declared that the U.S. no longer viewed Hong Kong as autonomous from the rest of China, following Beijing’s push to pass new national security legislation in the former British colony.
Protesters in the special administrative region have pushed back against Beijing’s encroachments for months in uprisings that have been met with harsh police crackdowns. The U.S.-China trade war combined with the protests sent Hong Kong into a recession last year.
Under a law passed last year, the State Department designation could open up Chinese officials to new U.S. sanctions. It could also jeopardize the trade relationship between the U.S. and Hong Kong, a major business hub that is home to hundreds of U.S. businesses.
For months, the U.S. and China have also sparred over culpability for the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, last year. Officials in both countries have sought to blame each other for the spread of the deadly virus.
While Trump has criticized China for its handling of Covid-19, his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping has been mixed. After years of negotiations and a multiyear trade war, the two men clinched a “phase one” trade deal earlier this year, with plans to address more disagreements between the two countries in future phases.
Trump, who will face voters again in less than six months, has touted the agreement as one of the signature policy accomplishments of his term.