Just one day before the Biden administration takes offices, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dropped one last bombshell on U.S.-China relations. In a statement issued January 19, Pompeo officially determined that China has committed both “crimes against humanity” and the more serious crime of “genocide,” both of which targeted “the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
While numerous governments have strongly denounced China for its oppression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, the United States has now become the first government to officially determine the Chinese government’s campaign amounts to genocide.
“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” Pompeo said. The statement also made repeated comparisons between the actions of the Chinese government and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.
There has been a heated debate over what to call China’s atrocities against Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang, which include mass detentions, forced sterilizations, destruction of cultural heritage, and race- and religious-based targeting of Chinese citizens for extra surveillance. While the term “genocide” has been applied informally, it has a specific legal definition that centers largely on the question of intent. As the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention notes on its website, “To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group.”
China has consistently denied any intention to specifically target the Uyghurs or other ethnic groups, arguing that its actions are necessary steps to prevent terrorism. It also has not been conducting a mass murder campaign against Uyghurs. That may make it difficult to prove the intent of genocide – although Pompeo is on safer ground in his charge of “crimes against humanity,” as Hofstra Law professor Julian Ku noted on Twitter.
Given the timing, it will fall on the Biden administration to determine how to actually give teeth to the genocide determination. It’s unlikely that new President Joe Biden will walk it back, given that Biden’s team had itself referred to the atrocities in Xinjiang as “genocide” and urged the Trump administration to make a such a declaration.
“The unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates in August. “If the Trump administration does indeed choose to call this out for what it is, as Joe Biden already did, the pressing question is what will Donald Trump do to take action.”
That “pressing question” is now the Biden administration’s problem to solve. It will be hard, for example, to justify taking part in an Olympic Games hosted by a government the United States has accused of genocide – but announcing an official boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics would dramatically increase tensions with China.
President Donald Trump previously told Axios that he had held off on applying sanctions to China over Xinjiang because he didn’t want to jeopardize negotiations over a U.S.-China trade deal. In the last year, however, the Trump administration drastically stepped up its actions over the Xinjiang issue, sanctioning both Chinese officials and specific companies for their involvement in the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslims. Most recently, the United States banned the import of all products made with Xinjiang cotton, citing concerns over forced labor.
As of this writing, China had not responded to Pompeo’s declaration. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry previously accused the Trump administration of “staging a show of madness as their days at the rein are numbered.”