China lashed out at the United States on Thursday after President Trump signed into law a bill that would allow him to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass incarceration of more than 1 million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang.
The rebuke came after China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, held an unusual meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii that underscored the depth of discord between the two countries. The Trump administration has intensified its criticism of China on a variety of fronts, especially its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s incarceration of members of minority groups in Xinjiang has become another increasingly contentious, if complicated, issue between the two countries. New accusations by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, have muddied the issue even further.
On Wednesday, the same day Trump signed the legislation, Bolton accused the president of once supporting Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, published in The Wall Street Journal, Bolton said Trump had questioned why the United States would impose sanctions on the Chinese officials involved.
In a private meeting with Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in Japan last year, Bolton wrote, the president even accepted the rationale of Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, for the creation of a vast system of camps and surveillance in Xinjiang.
“According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Bolton wrote.
Bolton also accused Trump of making obsequious appeals to Xi to buy produce from farmers in states considered vital to his reelection campaign.
Bolton’s account underscored the jarring contradictions of Trump’s policies toward China, which have confused and angered the Chinese leadership. The administration has strongly criticized China, most recently for its aggressive move to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy and for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 117,000 Americans and infected more than 2 million.
Bolton, who left his position last fall, portrays a president pleading with Xi for political help, particularly through a truce in the trade war that would increase Chinese purchases of US products.
Now, however, the Trump administration’s fury with China is a pillar of his reelection strategy — and that of many Republican lawmakers.
Chinese officials portrayed the meeting between Yang and Pompeo — which was hastily arranged and conducted in unusual secrecy — as a constructive dialogue, signaling that perhaps the two countries would step back from a confrontation that has plunged relations to the lowest level in decades.
Both sides, however, offered only scant details of the talks in Hawaii, which were conducted with unusual opacity, usually reserved for only the most sensitive diplomatic missions. What information they did release suggested the meeting did little to resolve the underlying tensions between the two countries.
A statement by a spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said Yang had challenged the United States on three issues. He criticized US support for Taiwan, accused the administration of interfering in Hong Kong, and said the United States should support what he characterized as a successful anti-terrorist campaign in Xinjiang.
A separate statement from the Communist Party Standing Committee in Xinjiang, which has carried out the central government’s orders to crack down on Uighur culture and faith, called the legislation “a scrap of paper that will be swept into the garbage dump by the force of justice.” Its members would presumably be among those targeted by the administration for punishment under the bill Trump signed.
The juxtaposition of Trump making the legislation law and his former adviser saying he endorsed China’s actions in Xinjiang dismayed activists who had long implored the United States and other countries to do more to stop the repression of Uighur culture and faith.
“The president that we trusted had already betrayed us from the beginning,” Fatimah Abdulghafur, a Uighur activist in Australia, said in a telephone interview.
Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist in the United States, said that Trump had put his presidency and reelection hopes above human rights issues. Still, he said that it was possible that Trump’s views had evolved and that Trump’s signing of the legislation outweighed any concerns about his comments to Xi.
“The happiness and joy overcome the sadness,” he said.