The actions on Thursday target a cluster of officials who played a major role in devising and enforcing policies in Xinjiang that have detained hundreds of thousands — some estimates put it at more than a million — members of largely Muslim ethnic minorities in indoctrination camps, while also smothering those groups under a net of surveillance.
Rayhan Asat, a Uighur lawyer who is a United States resident in Washington, said sanctions imposed under the Magnitsky Act allowed the United States to hold Chinese officials accountable for what she called genocide in Xinjiang. Her younger brother, Ekpar Asat, was detained by security officials after he returned to Xinjiang in 2016 following a visit to the United States on a State Department cultural exchange program. He was reportedly sentenced to 15 years in prison on criminal charges.
“Today’s decision sends a clear message to the perpetrators that they cannot continue to commit the crime of all crimes with impunity, to victims like my brother Ekpar Asat that they are not forgotten, and to the bystander countries to follow suit,” Ms. Asat added.
Mr. Chen, the most prominent of the four officials facing sanctions, has been the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang since August 2016. He oversaw a rise in mass detentions of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities, and consequently was named as a potential target of American sanctions in a congressional act on the Uighur issue signed into law last month. The New York Times reported last year on government documents from the Xinjiang region that described how Mr. Chen, who previously served as a party chief of Tibet, ordered officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
“Chen Quanguo is truly one of the worst human rights abusers in the world today, and he cut his repressive teeth in Tibet,” Matteo Mecacci, the president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said in response to the announcement on Thursday. “By developing a model of intense security and forced assimilation in the Tibet Autonomous Region, then implementing and expanding on that model in Xinjiang, Chen has inflicted untold suffering on millions of Tibetans, Uighurs and other non-Chinese ethnic groups.”
Another official facing sanctions, Mr. Zhu, led a Communist Party law-and-order committee in Xinjiang from 2016 until early last year. Mr. Zhu appears to have played an important role in the mass-detention drive, urging officials across the region and helping them cope with the practicalities of rapidly confining hundreds of thousands of people.
In 2017, a directive signed by Mr. Zhu called recent terrorist attacks in Britain “a warning and a lesson for us.” It blamed the British government’s “excessive emphasis on ‘human rights above security,’ and inadequate controls on the propagation of extremism on the internet and in society.”