Jan 19, 2021 - World

U.S. declares China's actions against Uyghurs "genocide"

A protester in London. Photo Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty

With just one day left in President Trump's term, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has officially determined that China's campaign of mass internment, forced labor and forced sterilization of over 1 million Muslim minorities in Xinjiang constitutes "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."

Why it matters: The U.S. has become the first country to adopt these terms to describe the Chinese Communist Party's gross human rights abuses in its far northwest.

What they're saying: "After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that since at least March 2017, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," Pompeo said in a statement, adding in a second determination that the CCP has also committed "genocide" there.

The latest: During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, President-elect Biden's nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, said he agrees with the determination that China is committing "genocide" in Xinjiang.

Details: Pompeo said "these crimes are ongoing" and include:

  • Arbitrary imprisonment of over 1 million people.
  • Forced sterilization.
  • Torture of those detained.
  • Forced labor.
  • Restrictions on religious freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of movement.

Context: Late last year, Pompeo ordered an internal review, to be overseen by Morse Tan, U.S. ambassador-at-large for the Office of Global Criminal Justice, to determine whether China's actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.

  • The effort was the culmination of years of work at the State Department to help raise awareness of China's repression of Uyghur in Xinjiang.
  • The Biden campaign has previously called China's actions in Xinjiang a "genocide." It had been unclear whether the Trump administration would make this formal determination before Biden assumed office.
  • "If we had been able to do it sooner, we would have," a senior administration official said. "We have been working on this for years now. We have struggled from day one, since we came to see the contours of what is going on in Xinjiang, with what to call it."

What to watch: Though the U.S. is the first country to make this determination, senior administration officials expressed hope that other countries may soon follow suit.

  • Last week, U.K. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab denounced China's "barbarism" in Xinjiang and announced heavy fines for companies that don't prove their supply chains are free of forced labor.
  • The EU recently passed the European Magnitsky Law making it easier to punish human rights violators.
  • The other side: China has pushed its international partners to oppose any criticism of its Xinjiang policies.

Background: China's northwest region of Xinjiang is home to around 11 million Uyghurs and several other Muslim-minority ethnic groups who have long faced severe religious and cultural repression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • After ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 resulted in hundreds of deaths — and especially after the rise of the Islamic State attracted some Uighur adherents — CCP leaders embarked on a campaign to wipe out what they viewed as the root of the problem: the Uyghurs' Islamic faith and their loyalty to their own ethnic and cultural identity, distinct from that of China's majority Han ethnic group.
  • In early 2017, China began constructing a string of mass detention centers across Xinjiang capable of holding up to a million or more detainees. Survivor testimonies and Chinese government documents have revealed that detainees are often held in terrible conditions and spend their days enduring political indoctrination and in some cases physical abuse.
  • Growing evidence of forced labor on a mass scale has resulted in calls for companies to extricate themselves from Xinjiang-based supply chains. The U.S. has banned the import of cotton and tomato products made in Xinjiang and has put numerous Chinese companies entities on an export blacklist due to their complicity in mass surveillance, detention and forced labor.

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This story has been updated with comments from Tony Blinken.

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