The US government is poised to punish Chinese officials over the mass internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, months after a previous round of discussions about sanctions was quashed at the cabinet level, according to a US official and two other individuals briefed on the matter. A newly prepared sanctions package has gained working-level consensus across several departments, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is said to have held up the action due to concern that it could disrupt trade negotiations, which have resumed in advance of the meeting next week between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan at the G20 conference. Mnuchin – a moderate in an administration marked by its hard line in dealings with China – was reported to have impeded a move to consider similar sanctions in December, after Trump and Xi last met. Sources said there was agreement across multiple agencies at the working level on the need for and details of the sanctions, which would come under the Global Magnitsky Act, an Obama-era tool that freezes the US-based assets and restricts travel of foreign individuals deemed responsible for human rights abuses. “The sanctions are ready,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’re ready to go.” That account was confirmed by people recently briefed by the government, including Omer Kanat of the Uygur Human Rights Project. “The sanction is coming,” Kanat, the Washington-based organisation’s director cited State Department officials as saying at a meeting earlier this month. “Many government agencies are involved, they are in contact, they are in agreement on sanctions.” Speaking out: Uygurs in US break silence on China’s crackdown In preparation for the sanctions, the State Department approached Uygur advocacy groups in May and asked them to submit evidence to support the application of the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials responsible for the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, according to a person with knowledge of the request. Calls for sanctions against Chinese officials have proliferated since last year, amid a growing global outcry over Beijing’s internment and political indoctrination of an estimated one million or more ethnic Uygurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Beijing has bristled at any mention of US action over Xinjiang, with a foreign ministry spokesman in March slamming calls from US lawmakers for Magnitsky sanctions as “smears” and attempts to sabotage bilateral relations. The Chinese government has also vehemently defended the camps, calling them “vocational training centres” designed to combat “terrorism and extremism”. But its all-out propaganda offensive and highly controlled tours of the facilities for foreign diplomats and journalists have failed to quell critics, including US lawmakers, academics and Uygur activists who seek a strong US response. Despite the inter-agency consensus that Magnitsky Act sanctions are needed, numerous cabinet-level officials must sign off on the action for it to move forward. The agencies involved in the preparation and enactment of such sanctions include the departments of state, treasury, commerce and defence. Uygur leader urges pressure on China as he receives US award Kanat was not given a timetable for the sanctions, but said senior officials from several agencies, including the State Department, told him that “the problem is with the Treasury Department”. That claim was confirmed by the government source, who told the South China Morning Post there had been no indication of willingness from Mnuchin to stop blocking the action. The Treasury Department, which would announce the Magnitsky sanctions since they include the freezing of foreign individuals’ US-based assets, did not respond to requests for comment. The Commerce Department referred inquiries to the Treasury, while the Pentagon did not respond. Fuelling concern that Treasury stands in the way of the sanctions package are reports that the department stalled similar movements late last year, after Trump and Xi met in Argentina. The New York Times reported last month that deliberations then about whether to impose sanctions against Chinese officials over the internment camps sputtered at the Treasury Department out of concerns they would disrupt progress in trade negotiations. “There was instruction for Treasury … to prepare a package to have specific individuals and the reasons why they’re included in the list for sanctions,” the government official told the Post . Amid hopes that a trade deal was on the horizon – Washington and Beijing agreed to a three-month reprieve in tariff escalation in December to allow negotiators to hammer out an agreement – the department refused to prepare its component of the package, the official said, characterising Mnuchin’s position at the time as “I want my trade deal done”. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping confirm G20 meeting Prospects of follow-through on the sanctions this time appear somewhat greater. Treasury had prepared its component of the sanctions package, the official said – a step that was not completed last year given Mnuchin’s intervention. “This is a tiny victory,” the official said, adding that Treasury’s package was finished around March. “Once the political decision is made, it [can] be done, the sanctions [can] go ahead.” The reaching of working-level consensus across all departments was in itself a notable achievement, former State Department official Sarah Sewall said, adding that every department has “different equities and interests”. “It’s a lot easier in a lot of these inter-agency processes to stop something than it is to start something,” said Sewall, a former undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights who served as the Obama administration’s special coordinator for Tibet. Another person briefed by government officials said the thwarting of that inter-agency process last year had tempered hopes that the sanctions would ever be applied, especially since officials had told him in December the sanctions were imminent. But this time, he said, “there are indications … they are planning to actually enact them soon”. Huawei CEO says he did not expect such a ferocious US attack One difference since December is clear. As hopes for an imminent trade deal were dashed in early May with the breakdown in talks, the administration hardened its position on a number of other fronts. In mid-May, Trump signed an executive order laying the groundwork for banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies from the American market – another move that, according to Bloomberg, had been held off for months out of concern it would disrupt trade negotiations. The US government is also weighing whether to limit the Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision’s ability to buy American technology, The New York Times reported last month. If so, it would mark the first time the Trump administration has punished a Chinese company for its role in the surveillance and mass detention of Uygurs. “It would be hard for me to believe that Xinjiang was not part of the decision-making process” on Hikvision, said Todd Stein, a former State Department member of staff who worked on human rights issues in China during the Obama administration. In recent months, Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the State Department, has repeatedly denounced China’s crackdown on Muslims, as well as on Christians and Tibetan Buddhists. ‘Chinese government is at war with faith,’ US envoy says In an interview with the Post , Brownback declined to comment on the possibility of applying the Magnitsky sanctions, but said “the United States is very concerned about what’s happened in Xinjiang”, calling the level of repression in the region “horrific” and the deployment of hi-tech surveillance “highly unwise”. “The things I say are not said just because I dream them up,” Brownback said. “I’m an ambassador of the administration and this administration approves what I put forward.” Many in Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – have demanded more than verbal condemnations. In April, more than 40 lawmakers sent a letter to Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross communicating their disappointment “with the administration’s failure so far to impose any sanctions related to the ongoing systemic and egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang”. Moreover, a bipartisan bill – the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 – is headed to a vote in the Senate. It demands that the secretary of state consider “the applicability of existing authorities, including the Global Magnitsky Act, to impose targeted sanctions” on officials from the Chinese government and ruling Communist Party who are “credibly alleged” to be responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including the region’s hardline party chief Chen Quanguo. Apart from his position in Xinjiang, Chen also sits on the party’s 25-member ruling Politburo. If Chen is hit with punitive action under the Magnitsky Act, it would be the first time US economic sanctions had specifically target a Chinese official in the top echelon of the party’s leadership. Chen would not be the first Chinese official to be hit by Magnitsky sanctions. In December 2017, a former police chief was hit with the sanctions over the death in custody of an activist – the first time the Trump administration took specific action in response to human rights abuses in China. US sanctions former Chinese police officer over death of activist With the recent momentum of preparations for Magnitsky Act sanctions, some hope that a coming speech on China by US Vice-President Mike Pence could preview the action. In a speech scheduled for Monday at the Wilson Centre think tank, Pence is expected to slam China for its repression of religious freedom and human rights, according to CNBC. In October, Pence became the highest-ranking Trump official to publicly cite the mass internment camps in Xinjiang, during a speech outlining US policy on China seen as exacerbating the downward spiral in bilateral relations. Monday’s talk comes just before Trump and Xi meet in Japan on June 28 and 29, leading some analysts to note that any full-throated condemnation of China’s human rights record could make face-to-face negotiations difficult. Yet the “surgical” nature of Magnitsky Act sanctions – their targeting of individuals, not governments – could make the action suitable ahead of high-profile summits to “express disapproval in a way that’s seen as not rupturing”, said Sewall, the former State Department official. “Whenever you’ve got the president or another high-level cabinet official about to cut a deal or do a meeting, sometimes you would do Magnitsky [sanctions] because you didn’t want to raise the big issue in the meeting but you wanted to cover your flank with your domestic audience,” she said.