China lashed out at the United States on Thursday after President Trump signed into law a bill that would allow him to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass incarceration of more than one million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang.
The rebuke came after China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, held an unusual meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii that underscored the depth of discord between the two countries. The Trump administration has intensified its criticism of China on a variety of fronts, especially its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s incarceration of members of minority groups in Xinjiang has become another increasingly contentious, if complicated, issue between the two countries. New accusations by John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, have muddied the issue even further.
On Wednesday, the same day Mr. Trump signed the legislation, Mr. Bolton accused the president of once supporting Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, published in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Bolton said Mr. Trump had questioned why the United States would impose sanctions on the Chinese officials involved.
In a private meeting with Mr. Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in Japan last year, Mr. Bolton wrote, the president even accepted the rationale of Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, for the creation of a vast system of camps and surveillance in Xinjiang.
“According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Mr. Bolton wrote.
Mr. Bolton, who left his position last fall, portrays a president pleading with Mr. Xi for political help, particularly through a truce in the trade war that would increase Chinese purchases of American products.
Now, however, the Trump administration’s fury with China is a pillar of his re-election strategy — and that of many Republican lawmakers.
Chinese officials portrayed the meeting between Mr. Yang and Mr. Pompeo — which was hastily arranged and conducted in unusual secrecy — as a constructive dialogue, signaling that perhaps the two countries would step back from a confrontation that has plunged relations to the lowest level in decades.
Both sides, however, offered only scant details of the talks in Hawaii, which were conducted with unusual opacity, usually reserved for only the most sensitive diplomatic missions. What information they did release suggested the meeting did little to resolve the underlying tensions between the two countries.
A statement by a spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said that Mr. Yang had challenged the United States on three issues. He criticized American support for Taiwan, accused the administration of interfering in Hong Kong, and said the United States should support what he characterized as a successful anti-terrorist campaign in Xinjiang.
A separate statement from the Communist Party Standing Committee in Xinjiang, which has carried out the central government’s orders to crack down on Uighur culture and faith, called the legislation “a scrap of paper that will be swept into the garbage dump by the force of justice.” Its members would presumably be among those targeted by the administration for punishment under the bill Mr. Trump signed.
The juxtaposition of Mr. Trump making the legislation law and his former adviser saying he endorsed China’s actions in Xinjiang dismayed activists who had long implored the United States and other countries to do more to stop the repression of Uighur culture and faith.
“The president that we trusted had already betrayed us from the beginning,” Fatimah Abdulghafur, a Uighur activist in Australia, said in a telephone interview.
Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist in the United States, said that Mr. Trump had put his presidency and re-election hopes above human rights issues, Still, he said that it was possible that Mr. Trump’s views had evolved and that Mr. Trump’s signing of the legislation outweighed any concerns about his comments to Mr. Xi.
“The happiness and joy overcome the sadness,” he said.
The State Department’s description of the meeting between Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yang did not mention Xinjiang explicitly. It said that “the Secretary stressed important American interests and the need for fully-reciprocal dealings between the two nations across commercial, security, and diplomatic interactions.”
The statement said that Mr. Pompeo called on China to be more forthcoming about the coronavirus pandemic, a theme he has raised repeatedly in recent months. He has asserted, without evidence, that the coronavirus might have spilled out of a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic first emerged.
The goal of the meeting, said American official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy, was not to seek a de-escalation of tensions. Rather, said the person, it served as a warning of more confrontation to come as the United States election campaign ramps up and the country copes with the fallout of the pandemic.
Mr. Pompeo, in particular, has been incensed by the vitriolic attacks he has faced in Chinese state media in recent month, attacks prompted by his own criticism of China.
Javier Hernandez and Claire Fu contributed reporting and research.