It was, in the words of many human rights’ organizations and activists, an “appropriate parting shot” against Beijing as former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Jan. 19, his final day in office, strongly condemned China’s repression against the Uighur population in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a genocide.
It was a strong statement from Pompeo, prompting some experts to privately question China’s place in a panel of the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCR), which appoints monitors to investigate human rights violations around the world, including China.
Pompeo cited America's work in leading the world in holding perpetrators of the most heinous human rights abuses accountable, ranging from the Nuremberg Trials and the creation of the Genocide Convention in 1948 to the declaration of Daesh’s recent genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
He maintained that the U.S. administration paid “particular attention” to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) treatment of Uighur people – a Muslim minority group that resides largely in western China's Xinjiang.
Pompeo’s genocide accusations against Beijing are shared by many of new President Joe Biden’s top Cabinet members, including Pompeo’s successor Anthony Blinken who has said that he agrees with the assessment that the CCP is committing genocide against the Uighurs.
Similar accusations, though far less vocal, were already voiced by U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere about China’s repressive policies against the Uighurs and Turkic minorities. The U.S. genocide allegations against China could galvanize the entire West, under American leadership, to take a firm stand against China.
“For the past four years, this (Trump) administration has exposed the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and called it what it is: a Marxist-Leninist regime that exerts power over the long-suffering Chinese people through brainwashing and brute force. We have paid particular attention to the CCP’s treatment of the Uighur people, a Muslim minority group that resides largely in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China. 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,” Pompeo said, adding that the CCP’s repression campaign in Xinjiang against Uighur Muslims and members of other minorities, including ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz, had increased, particularly since March 2017.
Besides restricting their freedom to travel, emigrate and attend schools, and denying other basic human rights of assembly, speech and worship, the “PRC (People's Republic of China) authorities have conducted forced sterilizations and abortions on Uighur women, coerced them to marry non-Uighurs and separated Uighur children from their families,” the former secretary of state said.
Pompeo criticized the CCP apparatchiks for denying international observers access to Xinjiang, saying that they are instead spinning “fanciful tales of happy Uighurs participating in educational counter-terror, women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation projects.”
The former U.S. secretary of state also said that since at least March 2017, China – under the CCP’s direction and control – has committed crimes against humanity, predominantly on Muslim Uighurs and other members of religious minority groups. He stated that the crimes are continuing and include arbitrary imprisoning, the severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than 1 million civilians, forced sterilizations, the torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion and beliefs.
I have determined that the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China, targeting Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 19, 2021
The CCP’s hopes of new U.S. President Joe Biden revoking the genocide label were dashed when Pompeo’s successor, Anthony Blinken, said that he agreed with the finding of his predecessor. When asked during his confirmation hearing if he agreed with Pompeo’s assessment, Blinken replied, “That would be my judgment as well.” Biden’s team made similar allegations in August, saying that the Uighurs had suffered “unspeakable oppression ... at the hands of China’s authoritarian government.”
Some U.S. politicians would like to see stronger action against China. Sen. Ben Sasse warned that the U.S. is not taking China’s actions against Uighur Muslims seriously enough.
Sasse said that Pompeo’s genocide designation of China came "late," suggesting that both the Trump administration and the succeeding Biden administration had not done enough to confront Beijing.
“This decision is good and right, but it’s late. The United States isn’t taking the Uighur genocide seriously,” Sasse said in a statement.
Sasse added, “The Chinese Communist Party is a genocidal dictatorship and Chairman Xi (Jinping) is evil."
Human rights protection groups have urged Washington to take action against the CCP. “We hope to see the U.S. follow these strong words with decisive action,” said Grant Shubin of the Global Justice Center. “Where there is a risk of genocide, there is a duty to act.”
Pompeo’s classification of China may not produce any immediate consequences, although the legal implications mean the U.S. must take this into account in formulating policy toward China. The U.S. has already taken a series of sanctions against senior CCP leaders and state-run enterprises that fund the architecture of repression across Xinjiang.
However, the genocide designation means new measures will be easier to impose.
Earlier, the Trump administration announced it would halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang with Customs and Border Protection officials saying they would block products from there suspected of being produced with forced labor.
Biden, known to be a conscientious human rights promoter, would be under public pressure to toe a tough line against Beijing on the Uighur issue. U.S. experts on China believe that the genocide designation will also put pressure on European and other democracies to become vocal against the atrocities committed in China.
European allies have, so far, been restrained in vocally criticizing China out of fear that any direct and open confrontation would affect their flourishing economic ties.
Pompeo’s genocide accusations – the “parting shot” against China – will continue to figure into the Biden administration’s dealings with Beijing.
*New York-based op-ed contributor, expert on foreign affairs and global economics