The U.S. has restricted visas for Chinese government and Communist party officials involved in the persecution of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang province. Announced on Tuesday, the restrictions came just a day after the U.S. commerce department implemented export limitations on local companies, preventing them from selling their products to 28 Chinese entities.
The export restrictions mostly affect face recognition and other surveillance technology products. China's Public Security Bureau and several firms involved in surveilling Xinjiang residents were on the list of barred companies.
"China has forcibly detained over one million Muslims in a brutal, systematic campaign to erase religion and culture in Xinjiang. China must end its draconian surveillance and repression, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease its coercion of Chinese Muslims abroad," U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The moves taken against China by the U.S. mark the first time the country is held accountable on a global level for its systematic persecution of religious minorities.
The U.S. sanctions led to dismay in China, something reflected in a statement tweeted out by Beijing's embassy in Washington shortly after they were announced.
In a series of tweets, Chinese officials denied all claims of human rights violations and accused the U.S. of using the issue to interfere in China's internal affairs.
"Xinjiang does not have the so-called human rights issue claimed by the US. The accusations by the US are merely made-up pretexts for its interference," one post read.
"The counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang are aimed to eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism. They are in line with Chinese laws and international practices, and are supported by all 25 million people of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang," another added.
Muslim minorities have long been persecuted in China
Regardless of what or how the sanctions will affect U.S. internal politics, they still highlight a major, undeniable issue affecting the lives of millions in China.
While the East Asian country's government strongly denies committing any abuses, always saying measures taken by them are an attempt to crackdown on "extremism," activists say otherwise. In fact, the persecution of Muslims in the country is well-documented by top human rights organizations, especially when it comes to the Uyghur community. Uyghurs make up about 45 percent of China's Muslim-majority province Xinjiang. The city is a place where thousands have been subjected to torture for decades.
Muslims living in the province are barred from giving their kids certain Islamic names, wearing burqas, and donning "abnormal beards." Under regulations passed in recent years, people of the faith are forced to watch state television and provided guidelines on how children can be educated.
In 2017, Xinjiang's Muslims were reportedly ordered to turn in all religious items to police, including prayer mats and copies of the holy Quran.
State-sponsored oppression affecting China's Muslims has constantly been making global headlines. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch and in collaboration with Berlin-based security firm Cure53 reverse engineered the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) app and found that authorities collect detailed personal information of the Xinjiang population via a mobile application.
The app allows for the reporting of suspicious activities by alerting a nearby government official to look into the matter further. The official then decides whether the person involved should be investigated.
In 2018, officials from the United Nations said millions of Muslims are currently detained in camps in China. More than one million are held in what are allegedly "counter-extremism centers" in the far west of the country, according to Gay McDougall, the vice chairperson of the UN anti-discrimination committee. "Another two million have been forced into so-called re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination," she added at the time.