Jul 31, 2020 - World

U.S. sanctions China's paramilitary in Xinjiang

An illustration of someone cutting the strings off a hanging money sign.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration has announced it will sanction the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization operating in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities, aided by the XPCC, are perpetrating a cultural and demographic genocide against ethnic minorities.

Why it matters: XPCC controls vast swaths of the economy in Xinjiang. Depending on how rigorously the sanctions are enforced, they could hobble the region's economy and blunt China's plans for further economic development of the region.

The Trump administration also said it would sanction two Chinese Communist Party officials affiliated with the XPCC, according to a press release from the Department of Treasury.

  • “As previously stated, the United States is committed to using the full breadth of its financial powers to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang and across the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced the sanctions on Twitter, writing, "We call on the world to join us in condemning the CCP’s heinous abuse of the human rights of its own citizens."
  • The sanctions fall under the Global Magnitsky Act, implemented in 2016 to make it easier for the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials and entities complicit in human rights abuses.

Background: Little known outside of China, the XPCC, also known as the "Bingtuan" meaning "military unit" in Chinese, is a powerful, secretive organization that has dominated Xinjiang's economy and politics for decades.

  • It employs almost 12% of Xinjiang's total population, though very few of those employees come from the non-Han ethnic groups that comprise nearly half the region's population.
  • The XPCC is involved in the production of one-third of China's cotton, and in 2014, XPCC-controlled interests comprised 17% of Xinjiang's economy.
  • The Xinjiang government views the XPCC as playing "crucial roles in fighting terrorism and maintaining stability" — a reference to the draconian security state that authorities have forced on Uighurs and other Muslim groups there.

My thought bubble: This is a huge move by the Trump administration, and a major win for human rights advocates who have raised the alarm about the XPCC's role in running the mass internment camps.

  • In addition, enforcing sanctions on such a sprawling and secretive organization is an enormous undertaking. How much these sanctions bite depends a great deal on how many resources the administration is willing to commit to uncovering violations and enforcing them.
  • What to watch: The Chinese government is certain to view this as a major provocation and as a violation of their domestic sovereignty. Retaliatory measures are likely.
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