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Are former Trump officials in hot water, or are China's sanctions just hot air?

Are former Trump officials in hot water, or are China's sanctions just hot air?
© Greg Nash

In January, within moments of President BidenJoe BidenTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Biden, first lady send 'warmest greetings' to Muslims for Ramadan The business case for child care reform MORE’s swearing-in, China announced the imposition of sanctions against senior officials from the outgoing Trump administration. These sanctions were imposed against 28 individuals — and their families, by extension— who allegedly have “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such U.S. moves on China-related issues.” China also lashed out against the European Union for a resolution passed by European Parliament against China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, deriding them to “face up to the reality that Hong Kong has returned to China.”

Retaliatory sanctions against individuals from the U.S. have a precedence; China placed similar restrictions on U.S. citizens in July and August 2020, largely in response to Washington’s imposition of sanctions against Chinese officials accused of curtailing political freedoms in Hong Kong. According to Bloomberg, the latest iteration brings the total number of U.S. citizens sanctioned by China to 44.

Several reports have suggested that China’s sanctions are not a tit-for-tat move since they were not in retaliation to any immediate step by the U.S. This is despite the fact that the sanctions came almost immediately after former Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNikki Haley says if Trump runs for president in 2024 then she won't Blinken: China 'didn't do what it needed to do' in early stages of pandemic Biden loves the Georgia boycott — So why won't he boycott the Beijing Olympic games? MORE, before his exit, had warned China against keeping the pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong detained, accused China of committing genocide against Uighurs, and asserted that the U.S. will stop the “self-imposed restrictions” on contact between itself and Taiwan, which has been another source of consternation for China. Pompeo is one of the 28 sanctioned individuals.

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China has specified that the individuals sanctioned and their family members cannot enter the mainland, Hong Kong or the Macao region. Any organization associated with these individuals will be restricted from doing business with the country, in a bid to force the hand of entities that may have business with China to not employ these officials. According to China, such restrictions make sanctions “substantive,” because they ensure that people who have said “nasty lies” about China will not benefit from doing business with the country. 

However, Brian O’Toole, a sanctions expert at the Atlantic Council, disagrees. He believes these are more political statements and that China will “default to more of a case-by-case application than a well-defined restriction.” Another report, from The Diplomat, points out that staunchly anti-China U.S. senators and officials are “unlikely to employ Chinese banks or to visit China in the immediate future.” It should also be noted that a previous set of sanctions from the U.S. had penalized doing business with China, and the very lawmakers who passed it are unlikely to defy it themselves.

An aspect of the recent set of sanctions that has drawn attention is the timing of their announcement.  According to National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne, timing the sanctions on Biden’s inauguration day indicates that China is attempting to play to the partisan divide in the U.S. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement regarding the sanctions implied they are a warning for the new administration to not interfere in China’s matters, especially in the case of Taiwan.

Yet, the act seemed to have opposite results: The Biden administration called the move “unproductive and cynical” and urged Americans from both parties to condemn it. The subject of China’s aggression has produced largely bipartisan agreement among U.S. lawmakers. New Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenG-7 urges Russia to stop 'provocations' on Ukraine Blinken announces appointment of first chief diversity officer at State Department Blinken, NATO chief discuss 'immediate need' for Russia to cease 'aggressive' military buildup MORE even openly agreed with the Trump administration’s assessment that China is conducting mass genocide in Xinjiang. Biden had invited Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to his inauguration, and both Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden nominating first female Army secretary | Israel gets tough on Iran amid nuclear talks | Army's top enlisted soldier 'very proud' of officer pepper sprayed by police Israel gets tough with Iran as Biden signals shift from Trump Biden to nominate first female Army secretary MORE expressed support for Taiwan during their confirmation hearings, signaling the U.S. will maintain direct relations with the island, contrary to the “One China” policy.

The U.S. sanctions for which China vilified the former Trump administration officials are not merely an invention of that administration. The detention of more than 1 million Muslims in “re-education” camps has been verified by a United Nations panel, and the Uighur genocide is detailed in the annual report of Human Rights Watch. The violation of rule of law in Hong Kong, the arrest and detention of pro-democracy politicians and activists, and the brutality with which civilians and journalists have been treated in the city, also is highlighted in the report. 

In this context, Chinese sanctions against the outgoing U.S. officials seem to be inspired less by policy needs and more by an effort to corral and — as Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulGOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Iran talks set up delicate dance for Biden team House panel advances bill to repeal 2002 war authorization MORE (R-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put it — “silence and intimidate officials who had exposed abuses” by China.

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.