(Bloomberg) -- China said it was sanctioning a US company and two human rights researchers over work related to Xinjiang, escalating a dispute between the nations over allegations of forced labor.

China was freezing any assets held in the nation by Kharon, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, referring to a Los Angeles-based company that identifies sanctions and compliance risks for organizations. 

Edmund Xu, directer of investigations at Kharon, and Nicole Morgret were also barred from entering China and had any assets there frozen. Morgret was previously an analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and now works for a congressional commission.

Chinese companies were also barred from working with Kharon, Xu or Morgret. The moves are largely symbolic because Kharon and the two individuals are unlikely to have much business or property in China.

Earlier this month, the US sanctioned a pair of Chinese officials, saying they were linked to human rights abuses against minority groups including Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a far western region of China. Mao indicated that China’s sanctions were a response to that move by the US.

Kharon said in a statement that it would “continue to provide research and data analytics that is objective, independent and based on reliable sources.”

Kharon has published articles about issues such as sportswear companies that it says are at risk of links to forced labor in Xinjiang through their suppliers. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies credits Morgret with helping on a paper that said major US companies are exposed to suppliers that get gold from firms “that exhibit risk indicators of forced labor.”

See: Why China and US Disagree on Forced Labor in Xinjiang: QuickTake

Over the summer, the US expanded a ban on imports from the Xinjiang region by placing two more companies on its so-called entity list. Those were the first additions since an American law targeting forced labor in the area took effect in mid-2022.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act bars imported goods partly or wholly made in Xinjiang, unless companies can prove the products have no ties to forced labor.

China has long denied it uses forced labor. On Tuesday, Mao said “the US has once again concocted and spread false narratives related to Xinjiang.”

China has been accused of sending millions of minorities to reeducation camps in Xinjiang to curb terrorism. Beijing has countered that the facilities provide vocational education, bringing prosperity to the region.

The nation has sanctioned American people and companies before over Xinjiang and other issues. In 2021, Beijing sanctioned former US officials who were instrumental in shaping the Trump administration’s confrontational stance toward China. Beijing has also sanctioned US arms firms over sales to Taiwan. 

The latest move comes as ties between China and the US improve following a meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November. Those discussions led to cooperation on the fentanyl issue and to high-level military dialogue.

More: Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger 

--With assistance from Josh Xiao.

(Updates with statement from Kharon and more detail.)

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