WASHINGTON — Members of Congress sent a letter on Wednesday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pressing him to impose limits on the sale of certain technologies by American companies to Chinese companies or agencies. The lawmakers argued that Chinese security forces might use the technologies for overbearing surveillance and other human rights abuses.
The two signers of the letter, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Representative Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey, wrote that their concerns were “particularly acute” in relation to technologies used by security forces that are maintaining surveillance and mass internment camp systems on Muslim minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
The Chinese government and the Communist Party have been building large internment camps in the vast borderland region to control the population of ethnic Uighurs, Turkic speakers who mostly practice Sunni Islam, and other Muslim groups, including Kazakhs. Western experts who have analyzed the camps say they hold up to one million people. Human rights advocates and legal scholars say that what Chinese officials are doing amounts to the worst human rights abuse in China in decades.
In recent months, China has come under growing international criticism for the system, and prominent news organizations have done investigative reports on the camps, including The New York Times.
The letter, which represents the views of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, was issued as discussions intensify within the United States government about how to punish China for the camps, and is the second one the commission has sent to Mr. Ross this year on this issue.
Officials at the White House and in the State and Treasury Departments have been discussing whether to impose economic sanctions on senior Chinese officials who oversee the system of repression in Xinjiang. Those discussions were given new urgency after the congressional commission sent a letter last month to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking them to use the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on Chinese officials.
The commission named seven officials, but singled out Chen Quanguo, the party chief of Xinjiang. The Magnitsky Act, enacted by executive order in December, allows the United States to impose economic sanctions and travel restrictions on individual foreign officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.
The letter on Wednesday to the Commerce Department said there should be a “presumption of denial” for sale of technology or equipment that would make a “direct and significant contribution to the police surveillance and detection system.” That should include dual-use technology sold or resold to any parts of the Ministry of Public Security, the agency overseeing the police, the letter said.
The letter asked the department to explicitly add Chinese government groups and security agencies in Xinjiang to a list of entities barred from receiving technology exports. It said the department should also add to the list any Chinese groups or companies that are benefiting from the detention and surveillance system in Xinjiang.
Officials at the Commerce Department did not respond to emails seeking comment on Wednesday.
Security officials under Mr. Chen began putting the system into place last year. In the camps, which mostly hold Uighurs, detainees are forced to attend political ideology classes, where they are told to denounce aspects of Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party. For years, Chinese officials have said they are fighting the forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism in the region. There have been bursts of ethnic violence in Xinjiang, including mass rioting and killing by Uighurs in 2009 after protests over injustices.
A handful of Uighurs and Kazakhs released from the camps have spoken of torture and various hardships.
“Every Uighur person knows one or two people who have disappeared into these camps,” said James Millward, a historian of China and Central Asia at Georgetown University. “This is really on a completely different scale than anything we’ve seen before. It’s a different sort of approach.”
In May, the congressional commission sent Mr. Ross a letter asking whether Commerce Department officials were tracking export sales of the relevant technology to Chinese customers. Mr. Ross sent a reply in June that explained the department’s policy of limiting exports to China of items that could be used for crime control, because such items have the potential to be used for human rights abuses by security forces.