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The US Congress has passed an act that would restrict travel to the US of Chinese officials deemed directly responsible for limiting foreign travel to Tibet, in a first step towards targeting individuals in the Chinese elite for China’s human rights policies.

The act comes amid a Congressional push for direct sanctions against individual Chinese officials responsible for camps in the frontier region of Xinjiang, where about 1m Chinese Muslims of the Uighur ethnicity have been interned. The push has raised fears among the Chinese elite that they would be individually targeted by measures similar to the Magnitsky Act.

The Tibet Autonomous Region is currently the only area in China that requires a separate visa for foreign travellers, foreign residents and accredited foreign journalists or diplomats in China. Such visas are routinely denied, effectively closing the area including the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, during several months of the year that correspond to anniversaries of Tibetan protests against Chinese rule.

The “Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act” passed the Senate by voice vote on Tuesday, after passing the House of Representatives earlier this year. It would make Chinese officials directly responsible for restricting foreign travellers’ access to Tibet ineligible for US visas, after an annual report assessing the degree of restrictions. 

The current party secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, formerly served as party secretary of Tibet, where he rolled out the “grid management” system of police surveillance that has been duplicated and vastly expanded in Xinjiang. His policies are credited within the Chinese system for the lack of ethnic unrest under his watch.

In recent years, China has allowed visits to Lhasa by US officials including former US ambassador Gary Locke and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. This month, it diverted Germany’s top official for human rights, Barbel Kofler, to Tibet after rejecting her request to travel to Xinjiang.

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