US calls China's abuses of Muslim minorities 'genocide' and 'crimes against humanity'

The last-day determination by Trump's State Dept. changes U.S.-China relations.

January 19, 2021, 1:09 PM

With less than 24 hours left in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday issued a determination that the Chinese government has committed "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" against Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

The determination is a final parting shot that will complicate U.S.-Chinese relations long after President Donald Trump and Pompeo leave office -- but one that President-elect Joe Biden's campaign called for months ago.

"This genocide is ongoing, and ... we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state," Pompeo said in his statement, adding the Chinese government is "engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group, even as they simultaneously assert their country as a global leader and attempt to remold the international system in their image."

PHOTO:Protesters rally in front of the Chinese colsulate in Surabaya, East Java, on Dec. 27, 2019.
Protesters rally to condemn China's government for rounding up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in internment camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, in front of the Chinese colsulate in Surabaya, East Java, on Dec. 27, 2019.
Juni Kriswanto/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

The Chinese government has denied any human rights abuses, saying instead that its mass campaign targeting Muslims in Xinjiang province is about economic development and counter terrorism, even as it has severely restricted access to the western province by journalists, human rights groups, or United Nations observers.

Survivors of that repressive campaign, including the "re-education" camps that reportedly have detained more than one million people, report widespread abuses, including restrictions on freedom of movement, religion, and expression; forced labor; and torture.

More recently, survivors and researchers have said that the Chinese government has employed forced sterilization and abortions amid a sharp decline in birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities.

In the determination, the State Department references these alleged human rights violations, which Pompeo calls "morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices, and abuses."

PHOTO: A re-education internment camp is shown by satellite imagery in
Hotan, Xinjiang, China, Sept. 20, 2018.
A re-education internment camp is shown by satellite imagery in Hotan, Xinjiang, China, Sept. 20, 2018.
DigitalGlobe via Getty Images, FILE

Pompeo's statement doesn't include any new actions along with the designation, as genocide determinations don't have inherent legal repercussions. But this will be a stain on China's image on the world stage and a cloud over the future of U.S.-Chinese relations.

During the 2020 presidential election, Biden's campaign used the "genocide" label -- a rare subject of bipartisan agreement in Washington.

The State Department will continue to collect evidence on the "ongoing atrocities," Pompeo added, calling for international bodies to join the U.S. determination and investigate. The International Criminal Court said last month that it would not, for now, investigate the allegations of genocide or crimes against humanity because the alleged actions took place inside China only and China, like the U.S., is not a party to the court.

This is the first U.S. genocide determination since the Obama administration determined ISIS's crimes against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria amounted to genocide.

Notably, Pompeo weighed, but never issued a genocide determination for the Rohingya, the Muslim minority group in Myanmar that faced killings, rape, and torture and were driven from their land by Myanmar's military -- even after his agency published a detailed report of those crimes.

While Pompeo has repeatedly targeted Chinese provincial authorities with sanctions over Xinjiang, and the Department of Homeland Security has barred entry of any cotton or tomato products from the region, Trump is accused of backing the program. According to his former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to build the mass detention camps.

Trump later denied that was the case, but he told Axios last June that he had blocked sanctions on Chinese officials over the camps because he was in the "middle of a trade deal" negotiation.

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