The U.S. government on Tuesday declared China’s communist government guilty of carrying out a policy of genocide and crimes against humanity for its mass repression campaign against Uighur minorities in western China.
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was part of a string of moves by the Trump administration in its final days in power. The department also announced penalties on international shippers accused of helping Venezuela’s socialist government avoid U.S. oil sanctions, and the Treasury Department targeted a Russian construction firm helping lay the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline to Germany.
The China declaration is likely to have the biggest foreign policy impact.
“Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang represent an extreme affront to the Uighurs, the people of China, and civilized people everywhere …,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement. “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.”
Beijing gave no immediate response to the actions, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry said this week that it was preparing sanctions and travel restrictions on the U.S. — Mr. Pompeo in particular — for past actions that displayed “malicious intent” regarding Beijing’s policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
China has repeatedly denied the repression in Xinjiang and asserted that its actions there are part of an anti-terrorism reeducation program.
Some rights groups praised the genocide designation and pressed the incoming Biden administration to maintain pressure on Beijing.
“As reflected in numerous reports by journalists and scholars, the evidence of genocide is significant and substantial,” said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz. “The secretary’s statement underscores the importance of appropriate international investigations and prosecutions of officials for the crime of genocide in Xinjiang.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Mr. Pompeo’s decision “shines an essential light on China’s horrific actions … and correctly calls this persecution what it is: genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Calling for an international fact-finding mission to investigate the situation in Xinjiang, the religious freedom commission said, “The incoming Biden administration has the unique opportunity to continue the hard work of confronting China’s atrocities.”
Mr. Pompeo said the designation of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang followed a close examination of open-source and intelligence findings regarding the Chinese communist government’s treatment of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.
“These crimes are ongoing and include: the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than 1 million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement,” he added.
“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” he said.
More than 1 million Uighurs have been placed in concentration camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, according to the U.S. government.
Crackdown under Xi
The Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group originally from Central and East Asia with a total population of 13.5 million, including about 12 million in China. Some Uighurs have sought to reestablish an independent state called East Turkistan, prompting a fierce crackdown by Beijing.
The Trump administration said the campaign against Uighurs was launched under President Xi Jinping, who has sought to enforce communist ideological conformity among China’s 1.4 billion people since taking power in 2012.
U.S. officials said the decades of repression of the Uighurs rapidly expanded after March 2017 under Mr. Xi and included ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz residents. The State Department statement said the policies were “designed systematically to discriminate against and surveil ethnic Uighurs as a unique demographic and ethnic group, restrict their freedom to travel, emigrate, and attend schools, and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech and worship.”
“PRC authorities have conducted forced sterilizations and abortions on Uighur women, coerced them to marry non-Uighurs, and separated Uighur children from their families,” said the statement, noting that China has called the Uighurs “malignant tumors” and compared their Muslim faith to a “communicable plague.”
The statement called on China to immediately release all those detained in Xinjiang and abolish the system of internment.
The mass detentions and repression activities have been assisted by mass electronic identification and surveillance of Uighurs, U.S. officials said.
Human rights groups have identified more than a dozen concentration camps where Uighurs have been held and say the Chinese government has launched global disinformation campaigns and denied human rights observers access to the region.
The declaration of genocide is part of the outgoing Trump administration’s campaign to portray China’s communist leadership as heading a “Marxist-Leninist regime that exerts power over the long-suffering Chinese people through brainwashing and brute force,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“While the CCP has always exhibited a profound hostility to all people of faith, we have watched with growing alarm the party’s increasingly repressive treatment of the Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups,” he said.
The statement also said international judicial authorities should join the United States in seeking accountability for those behind the genocide and that U.S. officials are gathering and sharing the information they have.
The moves announced Tuesday were just the latest for human rights violations in western China. In July, three senior Chinese Communist Party officials, including Politburo member Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of Xinjiang; Zhu Hailun, Xinjiang party secretary for the political and legal committee; and Wang Mingshan, party secretary for the Xinjiang public security bureau, were targeted for sanctions.
Additional restrictions have been imposed on imports of Chinese cotton from western China that may have been produced with Uighur prison labor.
State Department officials who briefed reporters on the action said genocide was designated after a lengthy review of evidence. The officials declined to say how many Uighurs have died under the repression because estimates of the toll were vague.
On the types of forced sterilization, one official said the activities involved government sterilization, forced abortion and forced implantation of birth control devices. Uighur women have been forced to marry non-Uighur men, and Uighur children have been taken from parents.
“These are things we have all documented,” the official said. “Ninety percent of what we relied on is open-source information.”
The genocide in Xinjiang was traced to March 2017 after Chinese leaders issued policy statements and declarations on the Uighurs around that time.
A crackdown also followed riots by Uighurs in 2009 in Urumqi, a city in Xinjiang. China’s military was forced to call out internal security troops and tanks to put down the riots.
“On or around March 2017 [the CCP] launched a new ‘strike hard’ campaign,” the official said.
A second official argued that the repression directly followed from the nature of the Chinese regime.
“When you’re talking about 36 million deaths under Mao, the huge number of people who have suffered and died under the communist regime in China, this is what communist regimes do.”
“To use the language of communist doctrine, you have a new communist bourgeoisie who then crushes the proletariat,” the third official said. “These sorts of camps like the Uighurs are in and these sorts of mass atrocities are sickeningly common in these sorts of regimes.”
The designation is expected to trigger sanctions on certain Chinese officials that would bar them from entering the United States.