This article originally appeared as part of a ChinaFile Conversation on June 4, 2018.
A symbolically powerful step the U.S. government should take—and one for which the mechanisms are already in place—is to sanction Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The U.S. Congress created the Global Magnitsky Act in response to the death of a Russian accountant who died in prison after exposing high-level government corruption there. It allows for the United States to take two potential actions against foreign persons found to be responsible for human rights violations: blocking or revoking U.S. visas, or imposing property sanctions.
Chen Quanguo’s role in dramatically escalating state repression and violence against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang is clear. The Xinjiang regional Justice Department issued a key document mandating the expansion of the incarceration camps in February 2017, six months after Chen became Party Secretary in August 2016. Google satellite images of locations identified from government expropriation and bid notices clearly show that construction of several “re-education centers” began in the first half of 2017. In addition to the massive expansion of the political education centers, his tenure in Xinjiang has also brought omnipresent security checkpoints, as well as tremendous increases in security spending, security personnel hiring programs, and government procurement and construction bids.
As the highest-ranking Chinese Communist Party member in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo is the most powerful official in the region and ultimately responsible to Beijing for what occurs in his jurisdiction. The lines of authority in the Chinese Party-state mean that Chen is at the very least complicit in these abuses, if not a major driving force. Lest his involvement in the ongoing tragedy in Xinjiang be seen as coincidental, it is worth remembering that this escalation in repressive measures echoes similar spikes in security spending and hiring when Chen was Party Secretary of Tibet.
As a former member of the U.S. Intelligence Community, I am trained—and indeed, usually prefer—to focus on analyzing the situation at hand rather than offering policy prescriptions. I know that I can’t see the full scope of U.S.-China relations, and that there are factors beyond any given human rights concern that play a role in U.S. policymaking. In this case, however, the scale and scope of what is happening in Xinjiang demands a definitive and forceful response. The Global Magnitsky Act and an accompanying Executive Order from late last year make it possible to sanction an individual that is “responsible for or complicit in, or [has] directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” Further, that individual need only “be or have been a leader or official of … an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in” serious human rights abuse. Chen Quanguo is a clear example of exactly whom the Magnitsky Act was designed to target: an individual who is leading the incarceration of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens simply because of their religious beliefs.