US restricts visas for Chinese officials over ‘campaign to erase religion’ in Xinjiang | World news

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The US has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist party officials accused of being involved in the mass internment of more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang province.

The restrictions, announced by the state department on Tuesday, come a day after the US commerce department imposed export restrictions on US companies preventing them from selling their products – particularly face recognition and other surveillance technology – to 28 Chinese entities, including the Public Security Bureau and firms involved in surveillance in Xinjiang.

“China has forcibly detained over one million Muslims in a brutal, systematic campaign to erase religion and culture in Xinjiang. China must end its draconian surveillance and repression, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease its coercion of Chinese Muslims abroad, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said in a statement.

The US punitive measures mark the first time China has been held to account internationally for its programme of mass incarceration and persecution of religious minorities.

The sanctions prompted a furious response from Beijing’s embassy in Washington, which said that the US was using “the excuse of human rights” to interfere in the China’s internal affairs.

In a string of tweets the embassy said the move “seriously violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s interests”.

The embassy said: “The counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang are aimed to eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism. They are in line with Chinese laws and international practices, and are supported by all 25 million people of various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”

Inside the administration, the sanctions mark a victory for Pompeo, Vice-President Mike Pence, the administration’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, and the new deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, over the treasury secretary, Stephen Mnuchin.

Mnuchin reportedly argued against sanctions that would further derail difficult trade talks. News of the sanctions drove stock prices lower on the assumption that it would make a trade deal less likely.

Donald Trump himself has sought to avoid direct criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of the country’s Muslims, as well as its attempts to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, so as to avoid a breakdown in his personal relations with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

At a meeting on religious freedom last month at the start of the UN general assembly, scheduled at the same time as a global climate action summit, Trump gave the keynote speech but did not mention China or the events in Xinjiang, leaving it to Pence, Pompeo and Brownback.

The fact that these long-planned measures have been taken may reflect Trump’s awareness of his reliance on the religious wing of the Republican party for his re-election bid next year.

The state department announcement did not name the Chinese officials that had been targeted, but officials had previously pointed to the Xinjiang party secretary, Chen Quanguo, a member of the politburo.