The United States has ramped up pressure on China by blocking imports of cotton it says are harvested with "slave labour", and hitting Chinese Communist Party members with tough new entry rules.
Beijing has come under intense international criticism over its policies in the resource-rich Xinjiang territory, where rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps. Now the US has blocked cotton from the region, citing human rights issues.
The new rule allows Customs and Border Protection officials to detain shipments containing cotton originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a major paramilitary group already sanctioned by the US Treasury.
It comes after a dramatic new low in Australian-Chinese relations this week following an incendiary image published by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on Twitter. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the picture "repugnant" and demanded an apology.
China has also ramped up trading tariffs on Australia, including most recently on wine exports. On Thursday, Australia's parliament was set to pass a law giving the federal government the power to block agreements between states and the Chinese government, such as a controversial deal struck with Victoria.
"Australia's policies and plans, the rules that we make for our country, are made here in Australia according to our needs and our interests," Morrison said.
CHINA ACCUSES UNITED STATES OF FABRICATION
Regarding the cotton ban, senior US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official Ken Cuccinelli said: "The human rights abuses taking place at the hands of the Chinese Communist government will not be tolerated by President Trump and the American people.
"DHS is taking the lead to enforce our laws to make sure human rights abusers, including US businesses, are not allowed to manipulate our system in order to profit from slave labour," he added.
Beijing responded by accusing the United States of fabricating "fake news of so-called forced labour" and attempting to "oppress Xinjiang businesses".
"Their aim is to constrain and oppress relevant parties and enterprises in China and curb China's development," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday.
She denied there was any forced labour in Xinjiang, saying workers in the region "choose occupations based on their own wishes".
Xinjiang is a global hub for cotton, with one study by a labour group estimating that 20 per cent of the garments imported into the United States contain at least some yarn from the region.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in September that products from Xinjiang forced labour "often end up here in American stores and homes".
Beijing has staunchly defended its policy in Xinjiang, where it says training programmes, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism.
But US Homeland Security officials have described the region's training centres as facilities run like a "concentration camp".
The US House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously in September to ban all imports from Xinjiang but the bill has yet to pass the Senate.
America already bans products made through slavery but the proposed law would issue a blanket ban on products from the region, saying that forced labour is inextricably linked to its economy.
TOUGH NEW ENTRY RULES FOR CCP
Meanwhile, Washington also issued new entry rules for Chinese Communist Party members travelling to the United States, the New York Times has reported.
The new policy — which took immediate effect on Wednesday — caps visas of Communist Party members and their immediate families to one month and a single entry into the country, the report said.
"For decades we allowed the CCP free and unfettered access to US institutions and businesses while these same privileges were never extended freely to US citizens in China," a US State Department spokesman said in a statement quoted by the Times.
Applicants had previously been able to obtain 10-year visitor visas. The report estimated the new restrictions could theoretically apply to around 270 million people.
Tensions have soared between the world's two largest economies on a range of fronts and both countries have stepped up travel restrictions on each other's citizens.
Both countries have restricted journalist visas, with Washington curbing the number of Chinese nationals from state-run news outlets in the United States earlier this year.
China responded in March by expelling more than a dozen American journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The Trump administration has also revoked the visas of more than 1000 Chinese students under a policy introduced in June that accused some of espionage and stealing intellectual property.
Beijing did not confirm the new restrictions Thursday, but said earlier reports that the US was considering travel restrictions showed its "hatred and abnormal mindset towards the Communist Party".
"Some extreme anti-China forces in the US, driven by a strong ideological bias and deep-rooted Cold War mentality, are politically oppressing China," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a routine press briefing Thursday.
"This is an escalation of their political oppression towards China and China is firmly opposed to that," she said.
Beijing has previously accused Washington of "political persecution and racial discrimination" over visa restrictions.
CHINA TURNS TO NZ
China has also turned its attention towards New Zealand after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern supported Australia's condemnation of the doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
"This is an image that wasn't factual. It wasn't correct. And so in keeping with our principled position where images like that are used, we will raise those concerns and we'll do it directly," Ardern said.
An editorial in the Chinese state-affiliated newspaper The Global Times, which is often viewed as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, denounced New Zealand's decision to back Australia.
"Kiwis bleat like Aussie sheep but don't condemn Afghan killings," the editorial read
"The consecutive moves of Canberra and Wellington to describe the cartoon as 'false' or 'unfactual' are actually trying to shift people's attention away from Australian troops' brutality against Afghan civilians."
Several other countries have also showed support for Australia, including the United States. The incoming national security adviser in the Joe Biden Administration, Jake Sullivan, praised Australia and declared future US support.
"The Australian people have made great sacrifices to protect freedom and democracy around the world," he tweeted.
"As we have for a century, America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity and values."