China’s repression of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including its use of internment camps and forced sterilizations, amounts to “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” the U.S. State Department said Tuesday.
Chinese policies in the XUAR aim for “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, announcing a designation that Uyghur exile groups and human rights experts have advocated since the revelation in 2017 of mass re-education camps that have held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs.
“After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” he said in a statement.
“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” said Pompeo on the last full day of the Trump administration.
The outgoing top U.S. diplomat also said that Chinese actions in Xinjiang constituted numerous “crimes against humanity” – including arbitrary imprisonment or more than a million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and draconian restrictions on freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.
The determination could lead to more U.S. sanctions against China, following a series of trade and travel curbs slapped on Chinese officials and companies in the XUAR last year by the Trump administration. President-elect Joe Biden during the election campaign also said Beijing’s policies amounted to “genocide.”
Uyghur exile groups who have long lobbied for tougher measures against Beijing said the genocide declaration would make it impossible for the international community to ignore the repression in the XUAR. They urged other states to make their own genocide determinations.
“The implications are enormous. It’s unthinkable to continue ‘business as usual’ with a state committing genocide and crimes against humanity,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
“Whether it’s the 2022 Beijing Olympics or climate change, governments and companies can’t ignore the Uyghurs’ living nightmare. We have been waiting for this determination for a long time,” he said in a statement.
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017, subjecting many to indoctrination aimed at instilling loyalty to the Communist Party and eroding any religious identity.
Under increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.
Authorities in Xinjiang have also sought to curb the growth of the Uyghur population by forcing women to undergo sterilization, according to a 2020 report by Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based researcher.
“Today is a historic day not only for the Uyghur people in East Turkestan but for the entire humanity,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for their homeland.
“This determination proves the U.S. isn’t just recognizing this as genocide but also taking active steps to prevent it. With this determination, those who are responsible for committing this 21st century genocide will be held accountable.”
Scott Harold, a China politics expert at the RAND Corporation, said the genocide would not bring immediate relief to those suffering in the XUAR camps, but would boost awareness of the Uyghur cause and help protect those outside of China.
“Unfortunately for the Uyghurs inside China the determination is unlikely to lead to improvements in their situation in the near term, but it does mean that the world has not forgotten them, and they should not give up hope,” Harold told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“For Uyghurs outside of China, it means that they are better positioned to seek refugee status and/or avoid being returned to China if Beijing is seeking them, and for those China is not trying to have deported it means their family members suffering inside of China have a new and powerful champion,” added Harold.
Congress pushed for designation
Last year, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC) and two of its current and former officials over rights violations in the XUAR, as well as several top Chinese officials, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo—marking the first time Washington targeted a member of China’s powerful Politburo.
On Jan, 13, it announced a ban on imports of products made with cotton and tomatoes from the XUAR, citing forced labor concerns, following earlier curbs on hair products from the region.
The designation follows calls from Congress and an annual report released Thursday by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which said there was evidence that “crimes against humanity — and possibly genocide — are occurring” in Xinjiang.
On Wednesday, members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee urged Pompeo to designate China’s policies in the XUAR as a genocide.
“Its actions reflect an intent to destroy, whether in whole or in part, this population,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter.
In October a group of U.S. senators introduced a resolution to designate China’s rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the XUAR as genocide under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said his independent federal government body has long called for the genocide designation, based on forced sterilization and other population control measures.
“The incoming Biden administration has the unique opportunity to continue the hard work of confronting China’s atrocities,” he said in statement issued by Turkel and fellow commissioners.
The USCIRF urges the U.S. to push for an independent, international fact-finding investigation of China’s crimes against Uyghurs, swift and targeted sanctions under the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act against the officials responsible for abuses in the XUAR, it said.
“The American government must do more to hold China to account and to end this genocide,” said the statement.
“We urge American and other world leaders and corporations to condemn the genocide and crimes against humanity of the Communist Party of China that have been directed at Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims. The perpetrators must be held to account,” it added.
Biden’s nominee to be the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing that he agreed with the genocide label.
“Forcing men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” he said.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the U.S. State Department has “made statements that genocide has occurred” in five cases since the end of the cold War: Bosnia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Iraq (1995), Darfur (2004), and areas under the control of ISIS (2016 and 2017).
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.