Three Republican lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to sanction several senior Chinese government officials over their efforts to conceal information about the coronavirus and imprison those who sought to provide the world with information.
In a letter to the State and Treasury Departments sent on Monday, Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), a member of the House China Task Force, Lance Gooden (R., Texas), and Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) urged the Trump administration to sanction at least 10 top Communist Party officials, exercising its power under the Magnitsky Act, which permits the U.S. government to punish global human-rights abusers.
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The push for sanctions under the Magnitsky Act is the latest sign of an emerging consensus among increasingly hawkish Republican lawmakers in Congress that China must be held accountable for its behavior in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers have recently initiated investigations into Chinese infiltration of the U.S. medical research community and colleges, as well as China's long-running lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, in an effort to penalize the country for its coronavirus response.
The State Department declined to comment, citing its policy of not discussing congressional correspondence. The call is in line, however, with recent comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing China's coronavirus cover-up and urging an international investigation.
As the coronavirus first emerged, China detained medical and hospital workers, ordering them to destroy samples of the virus that could have been used to help develop an international response, according to the lawmakers. China has also threatened to sanction leading Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), for their efforts to hold the country responsible. Banks and his colleagues said their latest effort is in response to these threats.
"All of these baffling and damaging decisions harmed Chinese citizens and the rest of the world, encouraged the spread of COVID-19, and hindered governments around the world from crafting an effective pandemic response," the lawmakers wrote. "The result has been tens of thousands [of] unnecessary American deaths and substantial economic damage."
The letter marks the first time lawmakers have singled out by name Chinese officials they see as culpable. Sanctions would be slapped on Chen Yongxin, deputy mayor of Wuhan and director of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, who the lawmakers say "oversaw censorship and detainment of eight doctors in Wuhan for discussing the then unknown coronavirus."
The lawmakers also singled out Chinese security figures who they said "oversaw the detention and disappearance" of journalists and others who disobeyed Communist Party orders to censor information about the virus. These officials include Li Yilong, director of the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, and Xia Jianzhong, former deputy director of the Wuhan Public Security Bureau.
Also named in the call for sanctions is Ma Xiaowei, minister of China's National Health Commission, and Wang Hesheng, the commission's vice minister.
Additional sanctions would be applied to Chinese officials who played a role in the forced relocation of more than 30,000 Uyghurs, an ethnic minority population routinely targeted by the Chinese government.
"The Chinese Communist Party has spread harmful and misleading propaganda about the origin of the virus, accusing the United States Military of manufacturing and importing the virus to Wuhan," the lawmakers wrote. "Party diplomats have threatened a nationwide boycott of American goods to discourage independent medical investigations into coronavirus."
Banks expressed optimism that Pompeo would move on the lawmakers' request, particularly given the State Department's aggressive stance on the issue. He said the issue is all the more pressing in light of threats last week by China to interfere in the upcoming U.S. elections.
The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.