The Trump administration has found China guilty of “crimes against humanity” in its repression of Uyghur Muslims.
On Wednesday morning (Australian time), the US government declared the Chinese Communist Party responsible for the genocide perpetrated against the Muslim minority group which lives mostly in Xinjiang.
The rare determination, which was made in Donald Trump’s final full day in the White House, accused Chinese authorities of a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China was not just committing genocide against the Uyghurs, but also other mostly Muslim people.
In a statement, he said: “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.”
“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” he added.
Mr Pompeo accused Chinese officials of engaging in the “forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group”.
Congress passed legislation on December 27 requiring the US administration to determine within 90 days whether forced labour or other alleged crimes against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are crimes against humanity or a genocide.
What followed was an intense internal debate.
“This is a decision that we do not take lightly,” one of the US officials on the call said.
“It has gone through a lot of process and a lot of analysis. The Secretary made the determination in his role… that this is the tool that we need to deploy at this time in order to advance this vitally important cause.”
Officials in Beijing have denied accusations of abuse.
In a news conference, deputy director of propaganda for Xinjiang Xu Guixiang said “this utterly untethered fabrication of ‘genocide’ regarding Xinjiang is the conspiracy of the century”.
“People of all ethnic groups independently choose safe, effective and appropriate birth control measures. There has been no such a problem of ‘mandatory sterilisation’ in the region,” he continued.
China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in Xinjiang that it describes as “vocational training centres” to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.
Others have called them concentration camps.
In March 2020, it was revealed that at least 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang and were working under conditions that “strongly suggest forced labour” at factories across China.
Joe Biden’s campaign declared before the November 3 US election that genocide was occurring in China’s western Xinjiang region.
The US decision does not automatically unleash any penalties but it means countries will have to think hard about allowing companies to do business with Xinjiang, a leading global supplier of cotton.
Last week the United States imposed a ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.