Pompeo Declares China’s Crackdown on Uighurs ‘Genocide’

The Trump administration’s final parting shot at Beijing poses a diplomatic challenge for Biden on his first day in office.

A protester is seen in demonstrations denouncing China's treatment of its ethnic Uighur population.
A demonstrator attends a protest to denounce China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul on July 5, 2018. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

With less than 24 hours left in office, the Trump administration on Tuesday declared that China’s violent repression against its Uighur population constituted a genocide, following widespread condemnation of the Chinese government’s campaign of mass internment, forced labor, forced sterilization, and other human rights violations against more than 1 million Muslim minorities.

The move follows four years of growing tensions between the United States and China, as outgoing Trump administration officials describe Beijing as the biggest threat to U.S. national security in the coming century. It also represents a significant last-minute escalation in the standoff between the two rival superpowers just a day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing the declaration on Tuesday. “We will not remain silent. If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future.”

The United States is the first country to make the declaration, which could increase pressure for a new wave of economic sanctions on Chinese officials and prompt other countries, including U.S. allies in Europe, to follow suit. The British Parliament is set to vote Tuesday on a proposal that would prevent Britain from securing trade deals with countries that commit genocide, with an eye on a U.K.-China trade pact. 

“Does the use of this particular word set in motion particular administrative or legal processes? Not necessarily. But as a political and diplomatic matter, it certainly escalates the issue,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. 

“This declaration doesn’t immediately change anything, but as any victim will tell you, having the eyes of the world community see us, and acknowledge that our horror is real, means everything,” said Rushan Abbas, the executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, an advocacy group. 

Foreign Policy first reported that Pompeo was considering the genocide declaration on his way out the door last month. Making the declaration is not as simple as issuing a press release: For the United States to declare a genocide, considered the most heinous crime against humanity, agencies must navigate a complex thicket of legal definitions and requirements, including those outlined in the U.N. Genocide Convention. 

While both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have described the actions of the Chinese government as “genocide”—as did Biden on the 2020 campaign trail—some Biden transition officials could bristle at the timing of the announcement, presenting the incoming president with a new and significant diplomatic rift with the world’s second most powerful country on his first day in office. 

I agree with this in principle. But why wait till last day? said New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and served as a senior diplomat in the Obama administration. Sounds like Pompeo wants credit for calling out genocide, while punting to Biden the responsibility to build international consensus and figure out the immense consequences.

But others said the move is long overdue. “It is high time, past time, for the Chinese government officials who are responsible for years of gross, systematic human rights violations to be held accountable. And I’m eager to hear the Biden administration spell out how it will take this issue forward,” Richardson said. 

The announcement came just hours before Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, was scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a confirmation hearing. 

Pompeo’s announcement represents the latest in a string of last-minute foreign-policy moves designed to box in the Biden administration and try to cement Trump’s “America First” agenda on the world stage, especially when it comes to China. Another challenge the new administration will face is the Trump team’s last-minute decision to ease restrictions on how U.S. officials engage with Taiwanese officials, throwing a wrench into the decades-old so-called “One China” policy. In recent weeks, the administration has also designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, slapped new economic sanctions on major Chinese firms, and declared the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization with potentially devastating humanitarian consequences.

Beginning in 2017, China constructed mass internment camps in northwestern Xinjiang and began sweeping up hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups under the guise of a counterterrorism campaign. Survivors of the camps have described forced political indoctrinations, physical abuse and torture, forced labor, and even forced sterilization of Uighur women.

The Chinese government has routinely denied that such human rights abuses are taking place, describing the camps as education centers aimed at rooting out threats of terrorism.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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