Apparently unsatisfied that tensions were running high enough ahead of the first principal-level trade negotiations in months, the Trump administration raised the stakes materially on Tuesday afternoon, slapping travel bans on Chinese officials tied to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups”, Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The news comes less than 24 hours after the Commerce department blackballed Hikvision and more than two-dozen Chinese public security bureaus and companies citing Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs.
Pompeo went on to demand that China “immediately end its campaign of repression”.
This is a stinging rebuke at a time when Xi is struggling to craft an appropriate response to escalating violence in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrators have spent the last four months testing Beijing’s tolerance for dissent.
Tuesday’s visa bans are designed to compliment the Commerce department’s crackdown on China’s surveillance industry.
Amusingly, US officials are sticking to the patently absurd line that these two actions are somehow “separate” from the trade talks. That Trump’s concern for “human rights” seems to wax and wane with the ebb and flow of the trade war is just a coincidence, apparently.
On Tuesday morning, China’s foreign ministry condemned the blacklisting of Chinese tech firms. You can be sure an even sharper retort from Beijing will be issued on the heels of this latest escalation from Trump, who is clearly trying to secure leverage for Bob Lighthizer and Steve Mnuchin prior to discussions with Liu He.
The State department says the travel ban was done in coordination with European allies and with America’s friends in the Muslim world. The situation in Xinjiang was raised repeatedly at the UN General Assembly in New York last month.
Frankly, it is hard to imagine how the trade talks can proceed with even a modicum of goodwill at this point. While it’s all well and good to call out human rights violations, the timing of this latest broadside is laughably transparent.
Trump is feigning concern for a repressed people in order to secure better terms for his elusive trade deal with Xi. And there is no chance that anybody is going to see this for anything other than that.
After all, this is a US president who campaigned on a literal Muslim ban. Now, he’s banning Chinese officials from traveling on the basis of their mistreatment of Muslims.