This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Sanctions China imposed on the members of a U.S. federal government commission on religious freedom are “without merit” and an “affront against universal rights,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday.
On Dec. 21, China banned four commissioners of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) from entering the country in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on its officials over rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in its far-western Xinjiang region. China also froze any assets that Chairwoman Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair Nury Turkel, and Commissioners Anurima Bhargava and James W. Carr hold in the country.
“We remain undeterred by these actions, and we stand in solidarity with USCIRF and its staff,” Blinken said in response. “The United States is committed to defending human rights around the world and will continue to use all diplomatic and economic tools to promote accountability.”
The U.S. also called on China to stop its transnational repression of Uyghurs abroad, including imprisoning and denying freedom of movement to family members of Uyghur American activists.
“These acts undermine the international rules-based order,” Blinken said.
The independent, bipartisan USCIRF monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. Each year it issues a report that assesses religious freedom in several countries and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress.
China’s move came after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are subjected to mass incarceration, invasive surveillance, forced labor and other severe rights abuses.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the secretary of state’s allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang “lies of the century fabricated by some individuals in the U.S.” He accused the U.S. of trying to tarnish China’s image and restrain its development.
“These acts interfere in China’s internal affairs and gravely harm China’s interests,” Wang said at a press conference. “The Chinese side has made a response in accordance with law, which are completely justified moves to defend sovereignty, security, and development interests.
“We will continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard our national sovereignty, dignity and legitimate interests,” he said.
Nury Turkel, who is the only Chinese-sanctioned U.S. official with family ties in China, thanked Blinken for his support of the USCIRF.
“Beijing’s bogus actions against USCIRF commissioners stand in contrast to U.S. sanctions applied in defense of freedom and against perpetrators of the Uyghur genocide,” he told RFA on Tuesday. “We urge our allies and partners to join the efforts to stop the Uyghur genocide and to end the enslavement of Uyghurs and others in Communist China.”
Commissioner James Carr said he was disappointed that the Chinese government sanctioned him after he had worked to improve relations between the two countries.
“For China to be so concerned about religious minorities to the extent that they do everything they can to harass and intimidate them is unacceptable,” Carr told RFA on Tuesday. “Not only are the Uyghurs receiving inhumane treatment, but other religious groups, including Christians, are not free to worship.”
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also been sharply critical of China and its response to the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) late last year.
“The U.S. Congress strongly condemns the Chinese Communist Party’s retaliatory actions against religious freedom leaders, which directly follow our passage and President Biden’s enactment of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” Pelosi’s office said in a Jan. 5 statement, as quoted in a tweet thread by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin.
“The Chinese government’s abuse against the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities is genocide, and its intimidation tactics will not deter the United States from taking strong action to address this horror,” her office said.
The UFLPA, which was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, bans imports from Xinjiang unless they are certified as not having been made with forced labor.