Why China’s new sanctions single out Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio

July 13, 2020, 11:09 AM UTC

China said on Monday it will sanction two U.S. senators in response to U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials, whom the U.S. government claims are involved in human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

Beijing’s decision targets Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.); Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom; and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, of which Rubio and Smith are a part. 

The announcement came three days after the U.S. sanctioned four Chinese officials for their involvement in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where U.S. officials and human rights groups say the Chinese government has detained as many as 1 million ethnic Uyghur people in political “reeducation” camps.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the sanctions would come into effect on Monday, but did not specify what the sanctions were, Bloomberg reported. Hua listed the four officials but did not say why they specifically were being named. According to ABC News, the U.S. officials will be banned from traveling to China.

The Chinese officials targeted by U.S. sanctions include high-ranking Communist Party official Chen Quanguo, who is the Xinjiang party secretary and one of the 25 members of China’s powerful ruling Politburo committee. The sanctions were the first time the U.S. has applied the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to officials from China.

“Xinjiang affairs are entirely China’s internal affairs. The U.S. has no right and is in no position to intervene,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on July 10. Zhao said China planned “to take reciprocal measures” against the U.S. sanctions on the four Chinese officials.

China’s foreign ministry has consistently denounced and vowed retaliation for U.S. congressional measures relating to Xinjiang, classifying such measures as foreign interference.

The ministry has a similar attitude toward U.S. involvement in issues relating to Tibet, an autonomous region of China where U.S. officials and activists say the Chinese government suppresses religious freedoms and curbs rights, and to Hong Kong, a specially administered region of China. The U.S. says a new security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing infringes on the region’s promised autonomy from the mainland.

The four U.S. officials named in China’s sanctions are all outspoken critics of China’s government. The three lawmakers have spearheaded bills and resolutions related to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet—hot-button topics for the Chinese government—that target Chinese government officials for sanctions or condemnation.

In May, Cruz introduced three separate China-related bills, including one that called for sanctions on Chinese officials who allegedly helped censor coronavirus-related information coming out of China. Cruz called China “the single most dangerous geopolitical threat that America faces now and through the next century.”

Cruz also cosponsored the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which aims to sanction “foreign individuals and entities that materially contribute to China’s failure to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

In January 2019, Rubio sponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act; in September, he led the Tibetan Policy and Support Act in the Senate; in June 2019, he introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in November.

Smith cosponsored a bill introduced at the end of June that would give Hong Kong residents a refugee status “of special humanitarian concern.” Smith also cosponsored the Tibet act that Rubio led, and other similar legislation.

Brownback, who heads the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, often writes on Twitter about religious freedom issues in Tibet and Xinjiang and is vocal in his criticism of Chinese government action in those areas.

Both the U.S. and Chinese sanctions are considered largely symbolic, as officials on both sides are likely to have little financial or legal exposure to the other country or plans to travel there.

More must-read international coverage from Fortune: