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US says China’s repression of Uighurs is ‘genocide’

The move is expected to be the Trump administration’s final action on China, made on its last full day

Xu Guixiang, a deputy spokesperson for the Xinjiang regional government.
Xu Guixiang, a deputy spokesperson for the Xinjiang regional government.Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The State Department declared on Tuesday that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its wide-scale repression of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, including in its use of internment camps and forced sterilization, US officials said.

The move is expected to be the Trump administration’s final action on China, made on its last full day, and is the culmination of a yearslong debate over how to punish what many consider Beijing’s worst human rights abuses in decades. Relations between the countries have deteriorated over the past four years, and the new finding adds to a long list of tension points. Foreign policy officials and experts across the political spectrum in the United States say China will be the greatest challenge for any administration for years or decades to come.

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"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, adding that Chinese officials were “engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.”

The determination of atrocities is a rare action on the part of the State Department, and it could lead the United States to impose more sanctions against China under the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who said last year through a spokesperson that the policies by Beijing amounted to “genocide.” Other nations or international institutions could follow suit in formally criticizing China over its treatment of its minority Muslims and taking punitive measures. The determination also prompts certain reviews within the State Department.

The finding is the harshest denunciation yet by any government against China’s policies in Xinjiang. Genocide is, according to international convention, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

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Pompeo, State Department lawyers, and other officials had debated for months over the determination, but the matter had gained urgency in the Trump administration’s final days. As was common with most China policy, the issue of Xinjiang had long pitted administration officials against one another: Pompeo and other national security aides advocated tough measures against Beijing, while President Trump and top economic advisers brushed aside the concerns.

The Chinese government has rejected previous accusations of genocide and other human rights violations in Xinjiang. At a news conference in Beijing last week, officials condemned US politicians and groups for making such accusations.

“This utterly untethered fabrication of ‘genocide’ regarding Xinjiang is the conspiracy of the century,” Xu Guixiang, a deputy director of propaganda for Xinjiang told the news conference. “People of all ethnic groups independently choose safe, effective, and appropriate birth control measures. There has been no such a problem of ‘mandatory sterilization’ in the region.”

To deflect criticism from US officials, Chinese officials have also taken to underlining some of the Trump administration’s vast governance failures, including a death toll of more than 400,000 from the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly assault on the Capitol by a mob incited by Trump.

Before the new condemnation from Washington, the strongest statement by a government entity declaring that China’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide came from a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee. Last October, the subcommittee concluded that the Chinese Communist Party was culpable of the crime.

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Pompeo and senior State Department officials made the decision just days before Biden takes office. The finding could complicate his administration’s dealings with Beijing, but it also offers a source of leverage. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, planned to mention the “growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states” at a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday afternoon, according to a copy of his opening statement.

In the days before the decision, State Department officials had argued over whether China’s actions in Xinjiang met the standard for genocide or whether they fell under crimes against humanity, which has a lower standard, said US officials familiar with the debate. Pompeo decided to use both.

One US official said the best rationale for the genocide label on China was the use of forced sterilizations, birth control, and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.

Several State Department officials said the decision was rooted in trying to meet policy goals. They said they hoped the move would spur other nations to take a harder public line against China on this and other issues.

Some officials opposed to the action pointed out that the department never made a determination on whether the Myanmar government had committed genocide against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, despite strong evidence of the crime. In 2017, the department said Myanmar had committed “ethnic cleansing.”

Biden, a critic of China’s human rights record during his decades in office, has used forceful language to describe its repressive policies. In August, he released a statement calling China’s actions “genocide” and pressed the president to do the same. Trump, he insisted, “must also apologize for condoning this horrifying treatment of Uighurs.”

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Biden was referring to an account by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who disclosed in his memoir that the president told Xi Jinping, the leader of China, at a summit in 2019 to keep building internment camps in Xinjiang, “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Bolton wrote that Trump had made similar remarks on a trip to China in 2017.

Bolton and other aides said Trump repeatedly ignored their recommendations to impose sanctions over Xinjiang to avoid jeopardizing trade negotiations with China. Trump has expressed little concern for human rights, and for most of his term publicly referred to Xi as a friend.