US hits China with new trade curbs, sanctions over Uyghur rights

The United States on Thursday unleashed a volley of actions to censure China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority, with lawmakers voting to curb trade and new sanctions slapped on the world’s top consumer drone maker.

The United States has been ramping up pressure on China amid a crop of disputes, with President Joe Biden’s administration a day earlier targeting producers of painkillers that have contributed to America’s addiction crisis.

The US Senate unanimously voted to make the United States the first country to ban virtually all imports from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region over concerns of the prevalence of forced labor.

“We know it’s happening at an alarming, horrific rate with the genocide that we now witness being carried out,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a driver behind the act, which already passed the House of Representatives and which the White House says Biden will sign.

After prolonged negotiations to secure its passage, Rubio lifted objections and the Senate confirmed veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China.

Burns, a widely respected former ambassador to Greece and NATO and a professor at Harvard, has described China as an “aggressor” and denounced the “genocide” of the Uyghurs, but has also voiced a willingness to cooperate on issues such as climate change.

Some US businesses had voiced unease about the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans the import of all goods from the region unless companies offer verifiable proof that production did not involve slavery.

Xinjiang is a major source of cotton, with an estimated 20 percent of the garments imported each year into the United States including some material from the region.

Rights experts, witnesses and the US government say more than one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are incarcerated in camps in an effort to root out their Islamic cultural traditions and forcibly assimilate them into China’s Han majority.

Beijing describes the sites as vocational training centers and says that, like many Western nations, it is seeking to reduce the allure of radical Islam following deadly attacks.

The United States has described the campaign as genocide and, along with Australia, Britain and Canada, has planned a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games next year over the issue.

– High-tech surveillance –

The Biden administration on Thursday also fired off a round of new sanctions over surveillance in Xinjiang, where rights groups say China has been honing new technologies in artificial intelligence and DNA tracking to keep tabs on Uyghurs.

Companies hit by Treasury Department sanctions include SZ DJI Technology, by far the world’s largest producer of consumer drones of the type used in filmmaking and aerial photography.

“These eight entities actively support the surveillance and tracking of members of ethnic and religious minority groups in the PRC, predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

DJI has gone on to become a household name around the world among both enthusiasts and professionals that use drones, capturing more than 70 percent of the global market.

The United States had already restricted trade exports to the company, but the new Treasury Department sanctions will criminalize any US investment in it.

Other companies targeted included Xiamen Meiya Pico Information, which has developed a mobile application to track files on individuals’ phones, and Cloudwalk Technology, which was developed to recognize faces of Uyghurs and Tibetans and has since been deployed to Zimbabwe to help improve the technology, according to the Treasury Department.

Separately, the Commerce Department restricted sensitive exports to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences and 11 of its research institutes over biotechnology work including “purported brain-control weaponry,” a notice said.

The research institutes include centers focused on blood transfusions, bio-engineering and toxicology.

“The scientific pursuit of biotechnology and medical innovation can save lives,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the PRC is choosing to use these technologies to pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups,” she added.

Based in Beijing, the Academy of Military Medical Sciences has been active in development of a Covid-19 vaccine.