August 13, 2020 | Policy Brief

China Sanctions U.S. Lawmakers and Human Rights Advocates

August 13, 2020 | Policy Brief

China Sanctions U.S. Lawmakers and Human Rights Advocates

Beijing imposed a fresh round of sanctions this week on six U.S. lawmakers and five leaders of organizations that promote democracy and human rights, matching exactly the number of Chinese and Hong Kong officials the United States blacklisted last week for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties. While these sanctions, whose targets included Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and Ted Cruz, appear to be primarily symbolic, they clearly indicate the growth of an escalatory spiral of economic pressure between Beijing and Washington.

China justified its sanctions as a response to their targets “behaving badly on Hong Kong-related issues.” However, Beijing did not identify the specific restrictions imposed on these lawmakers, none of whom had impending plans to visit China. Last week’s U.S. sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials generally appear to be symbolic as well, with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam stating that she has “no fear of being blacklisted by the U.S.”

This tit-for-tat is the latest episode in an escalatory action-reaction dynamic between the United States and China. Over the past five months, the Trump administration has implemented a series of measures to hold Beijing accountable for its rampant theft of intellectual property, its role in the coronavirus pandemic, and its moves against the people of Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

Last month, Beijing imposed entry bans on Rubio, Cruz, and Rep. Christopher Smith for speaking out against China’s abuses of its Uighur Muslim minority. That move also came in response to a U.S. blacklisting of Chinese officials complicit in human rights violations, including Politburo member Chen Quanguo, the top official in Xinjiang, the Uighur population center.

The Trump administration also ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston following FBI investigations that connected the consulate to attempts to illegally transfer medical research as well as plans to persuade over 50 researchers, professors, and academics to turn over sensitive information to Chinese institutions. In response, China moved rapidly to shut down the American consulate in Chengdu, which offered U.S. citizen and visa services and kept close watch on Tibetan issues in Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

With Washington’s pressure increasing, China may begin responding more aggressively, as it did vis-à-vis South Korea in 2017. Three years ago, after Seoul agreed to host a U.S. missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), China enacted a string of economic reprisals, alleging that the THAAD system’s radar might spy on Chinese nuclear forces. Measures taken included curbing imports of South Korean cosmetics and banning Chinese tour packages to South Korea. In particular, China targeted the operations of the South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group, whose golf course was chosen as the site for the missile defense system. Lotte’s duty-free shopping website was ravaged by a denial-of-service attack. Several Chinese companies, including supermarkets and beauty product retailers, refused to sell Lotte Group’s products in its stores. Eventually, Lotte was forced to sell several of its stores operating in China due to severe losses from the uptick in tensions with Beijing. The case of Lotte Group and South Korea could foreshadow the aggressive tactics Beijing could utilize should tensions continue to escalate between the United States and China.

China’s responses should not deter the United States from continuing to support the human rights and freedoms of Hong Kong and the Uighurs. The United States should continue to speak out against China’s efforts to crack down in Hong Kong, such as the recent arrests of democratic activists Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow. The United States should also make clear that any actions to threaten American businesses will be met with strong measures targeting Chinese economic interests.

Eric Lorber is senior director of the Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Kavya Kannan is an intern. They both also contribute to FDD’s China Program. For more analysis from Eric, Kavya, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Eric on Twitter @ELforeignpolicy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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