Lawmakers in the House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for internment camps in the region of Xinjiang, where up to 2 million ethnic Muslims have been forcibly detained.
The legislation, titled the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, condemns the Chinese Communist Party for the detention centers and recommends a tougher response to the human rights abuses suffered by Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the region.
It passed with a vote of 413-1. Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie was the sole opponent.
“Beijing’s barbarous actions targeting the Uyghur people are an outrage to the collective conscious of the world,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote Wednesday. “This House of Representatives, in a very strong bipartisan way, we are sending a message to the persecuted that they are not forgotten. We’re saying to the president of China: you may tell these people that they are forgotten, but they aren’t.”
The Senate approved the bill two weeks ago. Now, it will go to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature. On Tuesday, he did not say whether he will sign it, telling reporters he is “taking a look at it very strongly.” The White House declined to comment when asked about the legislation Wednesday.
Under the legislation, the President would have 180 days to submit a report to Congress identifying Chinese officials and any other individuals who are responsible for carrying out torture; prolonged detention without charges and a trial; abduction; cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of Muslim minority groups; and other flagrant denials of the “right to life, liberty, or the security” of people in Xinjiang.
The individuals identified in the report would then be subject to sanctions, including asset blocking, visa revocation, and ineligibility for entry into the United States. The legislation gives Trump room to opt against imposing sanctions on the officials if he determines and certifies to Congress that holding back on sanctions is in the national interest of the United States.
The bill also requires the State Department to assemble a report on human rights violations in Xinjiang, including estimates of how many people are confined in the camps and information on the conditions they face. The State Department currently details the abuses in its annual Human Rights and International Religious Freedom reports.
A State Department spokesperson said Wednesday, “While we do not comment on pending legislation, the Department of State shares the concerns raised by Congress regarding the human rights crisis in Xinjiang and will continue to work with Congress to respond.”
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom celebrated the legislation’s passage on Wednesday afternoon.
“The world has stood by for too long as the Chinese government detained millions of Muslims in concentration camps,” USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel said in a statement. “The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would be the first major legislation focused on promoting the rights of Uyghur and other Muslims. Hopefully, other countries will follow the U.S. government’s lead and take action on this issue.”
Pelosi appointed Turkel, a lawyer and Uyghur rights advocate, to the commission on Tuesday.
More than 50 senators co-sponsored the bill, which was introduced by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A bipartisan coalition including Reps. Chris Smith, Jim McGovern, Brad Sherman, Mike McCaul, and others pushed for the bill’s advancement in the House.
Members of the House passed their own version of the bill last December, with a vote of 407-1. The Chinese government reacted with fury at the time, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying saying it “wantonly smeared” what China claims are counterterrorism efforts.
Senators had hoped to approve the legislation by the end of 2019, but Republicans took issue with some of the provisions the House added to the measure. The matter was also put on hold during impeachment proceedings.
Rubio praised the House’s passage of the bill in a statement Wednesday, saying the United States stands with Uyghur Muslims around the world “and will not sit idly by as the Chinese government and Communist Party commit egregious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.”
“For far too long, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to systematically wipe out the ethnic and cultural identities of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims,” Rubio said. “It’s long overdue to hold the perpetrators accountable and I urge the President to sign it into law without delay.”
The final passage of the legislation is the latest in a series of steps Congress has taken in recent months to establish a firmer stance with China — and it comes as tensions between the two countries are rising, due partly to the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China.
American officials have also raised alarms about the Chinese Communist Party’s announcement last week that it will soon implement sweeping new anti-sedition laws in Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature and threatening to limit civil liberties there.
On Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the extraordinary step of certifying to Congress that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy from China – a decision that could result in the loss of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the US.
He said Beijing’s controversial national security law is a “disastrous decision” and “no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”
Congress last year approved the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which required the State Department to issue an annual review of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Pompeo had delayed the release of the report earlier this month so the State Department could account for any actions the Chinese government was taking on the ground, including at its rubber-stamp National People’s Congress – where the anti-sedition measure is expected to be approved in the coming days.
“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself,” Pompeo said in his statement.
Trump is expected to take executive action regarding Hong Kong’s status as soon as Friday, according to two sources familiar with the administration’s thinking and two Republican congressional aides.
The sources told CNN that discussions continue on how far the executive action will go, and further action could come in the future.
Members of Congress have also proposed legislation to respond to the crackdown. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and a group of Republican lawmakers in the House have introduced a resolution condemning the move.
“If we fail to hold the Chinese government to its obligations to the people of Hong Kong, we will be condemning the city to the Party’s totalitarian rule and inviting further escalation elsewhere, including Taiwan,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who sponsored the resolution in the House. “The free world must stand united with Hongkongers in defense of their basic rights and liberty.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey are also pushing legislation to sanction officials and organizations who enforce the new laws in Hong Kong.