The US Senate has approved a bill calling on President Donald Trump’s administration to toughen its response to China’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority.
The bipartisan bill, introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, calls for “visa and property-blocking” sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim groups in the country’s western region of Xinjiang.
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The legislation comes amid criticism of China’s internment of more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim groups in camps that China says provide vocational training.
The Republican-led Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent, without a roll-call vote. Passage sends the measure to the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which must approve it before it is sent to the White House for Trump to sign into law or veto.
The move comes amid steadily worsening relations between the US and China over the coronavirus, with Washington blaming the government in Beijing for the pandemic.
China denies mishandling the outbreak and has condemned moves to pass legislation in support of the Uighurs as malicious attacks and a serious interference in its internal affairs that would affect bilateral cooperation.
In a Twitter post, Rubio called the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs “grotesque” and said the bill would hold the Communist Party accountable. The bill specifically singles out a member of China’s powerful Politburo as responsible for “gross human rights violations” against them.
Chen Quanguo, party secretary for Xinjiang, is in the upper echelons of China’s leadership and Beijing has warned in the past of retaliation “in proportion” if he were targeted.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Senate move.
Republican James Risch, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and its senior Democrat, Bob Menendez, called Thursday’s move “an important step in countering the totalitarian Chinese government’s widespread and horrific human rights abuses”.
They urged the House to take up the legislation quickly and send it to the president to be signed into law.
Global Uighur rights groups also welcomed the bill’s passage, with the World Uyghur Congress hailing it as a moment of “great hope” in a time of despair.
“Once a law, not only will it set a precedent for other countries, but it will especially send a strong signal to the Chinese govt that their human rights violations against the #Uyghurs will no longer be tolerated,” tweeted Dolkun Isa, president of the WUC.
''Once a law, not only will it set a precedent for other countries, but it will especially send a strong signal to the Chinese govt. that their human rights violations against the #Uyghurs will no longer be tolerated.''
-WUC President @Dolkun_Isa.
— WorldUyghurCongress (@UyghurCongress) May 14, 2020
The Uyghur Human Rights Project echoed the sentiment in a statement, saying the passage of the bill was “an important milestone in developing a response” to the Uighur’s plight and that “US leadership will help ensure other nations take similar steps”.
The Senate bill also calls on US companies or individuals operating in the Xinjiang region to take steps to ensure their supply chains are not “compromised by forced labour” there.
It also directs the president to control the export of goods that could “provide China with a critical capability to suppress” privacy, freedom of movement and other basic human rights.
Rubio cosponsored a separate bill in March aimed at preventing goods made from forced labour in Xinjiang from reaching the US.