(Bloomberg) — The Trump administration is slapping visa bans on Chinese officials linked to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang province, the latest in an escalating series of U.S. steps to pressure China over what Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.”
Pompeo is imposing the restrictions on government leaders and Communist Party officials who are found responsible for or complicit in the detention and abuse of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other minority Muslim groups in Xinjiang, according to the State Department. Travel by those officials’ family members will also be restricted.
The news rattled American equity investors already on edge over signs tensions between the two countries are rising ahead of the trade talks. The S&P 500 tumbled from session highs to trade lower by almost 1%.
“The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups,” Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday. “The United States calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.”
The move is authorized under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lets the secretary of state deny travel visas to people whose entry he determines “would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States.” But the move comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations, with a trade delegation from Beijing due in Washington for talks this week.
State Department officials said U.S. law prevents them from announcing who is on the new visa-restriction list, though they said names were already being added. It was done in coordination with a Commerce Department announcement Monday placing eight of the country’s technology giants on a blacklist over the alleged rights abuses.
“We’re showing that this administration is following through,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia David Stilwell said in an interview. “It’s consistent, it’s deliberate and the goal is to get them to reconsider this terrible policy they have.”
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The officials said the restrictions and the Commerce Department action are unrelated to trade talks set to begin Thursday, though one of the State Department officials said the U.S. believes Chinese officials don’t come to the table unless they know their negotiating partners are serious.
The Trump administration has steadily turned up the pressure on the Chinese government over Xinjiang, where the U.S. estimates more than 1 million Muslims are being held. The U.S. led an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last month condemning China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
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The Xinjiang action is only the latest source of friction between the world’s two largest economies. On Monday, President Donald Trump warned that trade negotiations would suffer if China does anything “bad” to quell protests that have raged for weeks in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, China’s state television has said it will halt airing preseason National Basketball Association games in the country after the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the demonstrators.
The U.S. coordinated the latest move with allies in Europe and in the Muslim world and is pressing them to impose similar restrictions, according to one State Department official. The person said administration officials had been directed to raise the matter in almost all of their meetings during the UN General Assembly last month.
China has responded with outrage to punitive U.S. actions over Xinjiang. Responding earlier Tuesday to the Commerce Department action, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the country urged the U.S. to “immediately correct its mistake, withdraw the relevant decision and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
(Updates with statement by Pompeo in fourth paragraph.)