NOEL KING, HOST:
China is banning a handful of American lawmakers from entering the country. China's retaliating because the U.S. put sanctions on some top Chinese leaders last week. The U.S. sanctions are punishment for China's detention and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Chinese Uighurs.
NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing with more. Hey, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: Which U.S. lawmakers can't go to China?
FENG: So it's a mixture of organizations and individuals. The sanctions cover American Ambassador-At-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Representative Chris Smith and the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which is a bipartisan group that monitors human rights abuses and the rule of law in China. These sanctions would ban these people from entering China. And they also would freeze any assets these individuals or entities have in China, which is very unlikely.
KING: Unlikely that they have assets - and makes me wonder, were any of them actually planning to visit? Like, does this actually - does this mean anything, or is it just more symbolic?
FENG: It is very symbolic. It might not actually hinder the work of these individuals, but it definitely means something. It's the latest round of sanctions between the U.S. and China, and it's about a region called Xinjiang, which China finds very sensitive. In the region of Xinjiang, China has long struggled to mend ethnic tensions with Uighurs, which is a Turkic ethnic minority. And it has detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs as well as several other ethnic minorities. We do not have the exact number of how many they've detained because China keeps its detention and forced labor programs there a secret. But based on reporting that I've done on the research of other analysts, it could be over a million individuals over the course of the last three years.
So last week, the U.S. sanctioned several top Chinese leaders who it says are responsible for coordinating this detention campaign in Xinjiang. Among those was Xinjiang's top Communist Party leader Chen Quanguo, who is part of this super elite Communist Party body called the Politburo. And this is why China is hitting back. These American individuals and entities have sponsored or supported legislation sanctioning China over Xinjiang.
KING: All right. So as you've pointed out - and as we know from the past couple of months or even years - relations between the U.S. and China have been really, really not great. What does this latest move mean for the relationship? Is it just more of a deterioration?
FENG: Yes, and it's probably the first of many retaliations we will see between the U.S. and China. In just the last few weeks, the U.S. has sanctioned other top Chinese officials who, it says, blocks outside access to Tibet, which is another region China controls very tightly. The U.S. has also put sanctions on any bank that transacts with Chinese officials who are behind Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong's civil liberties. China has said multiple times that it will retaliate in kind against Americans and American entities. So today we saw the first of those retaliations, but there will be more to come.
KING: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks, Emily.
FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.