World

U.S. says China has committed genocide against Muslim Uighurs

The Trump administration has determined that China has committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" in its repression of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, delivering an embarrassing blow to Beijing a day before U.S. president-elect Joe Biden is to take office.

In a statement, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he believes the genocide is 'ongoing'

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21. The move by the Trump administration on Tuesday is certain to further strain already frayed ties between the world's top two economies, just as a new U.S. administration is ushered in. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The Trump administration has determined that China has committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" in its repression of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, delivering an embarrassing blow to Beijing a day before U.S. president-elect Joe Biden is to take office.

U.S. officials briefing reporters on the move said in a call that "an exhaustive documentation of [China's] own policies, practices and abuse in Xinjiang" viewed by Pompeo led him to make the determination that such acts had been committed since at least March 2017.

"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 Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," Pompeo said in a statement.

"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state."

The move is certain to further strain already frayed ties between the world's top two economies, which have plummeted to their lowest level in decades in the last year of President Donald Trump's administration.

The rare determination follows intensive internal debate after Congress passed legislation on Dec. 27 requiring the U.S. administration to determine within 90 days whether forced labour or other alleged crimes against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are crimes against humanity or a genocide.

"This is a decision that we do not take lightly," one of the U.S. 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."

Asked during his confirmation hearing Tuesday afternoon whether he agreed with Pompeo's assessment, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken replied, "That would be my judgment, as well. 

"I think we're very much in agreement," he said. "The forcing of 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."

Antony Blinken, U.S. president-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state, says he agrees with the outgoing administration's assessment that China committed genocide against the Uighurs. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

China has been widely condemned for complexes in Xinjiang that it describes as "vocational training centres" to stamp out extremism and give people new skills, but which others have called concentration camps. Beijing denies accusations of abuse.

Late moves by Trump administration

Biden's campaign declared, before the Nov. 3 U.S. election, that genocide was occurring in China's western Xinjiang region.

The U.S. 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.

A Chinese police officer takes his position by the road near what is officially called a vocational education centre in Yining in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on Sept. 4., 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

It's the latest move made by Pompeo as his tenure winds down that could also complicate the strategies of Biden's foreign policy team going forward.

Earlier this month, he designated Yemen's Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization, a move the United Nations warned could undermine peace talks and make it harder to feed Yemenis enduring the world's largest humanitarian crisis as a result of the war between the Houthis, with Iranian support, and a Saudi-led coalition that has received arms from Western nations.

The Chinese government says the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park in the country's northwest is a place where people make wigs and other hair products that get shipped across the globe. Others say what’s happening at the park is forced labour, and that it’s just the latest in a pattern of grave human rights abuses committed in recent years against the country’s Uighur Muslim population — including the use of detention camps, mass surveillance and even forced sterilization. The Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park in Xinjiang province is an incredibly secretive, highly guarded place, yet Globe and Mail journalist Nathan VanderKlippe managed to travel there. Today on Front Burner, VanderKlippe discusses what he saw. 23:33

The U.S. Treasury said on Tuesday that official business of the United Nations and its agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies would be exempt from the designation.

Trump's administration has been piling on sanctions related to Iran in recent weeks, suggesting to some that the Republican wants to make it harder for Biden's administration to re-engage with Iran and rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after he becomes president. For Biden to undo the designation would require a lengthy legal review, and he could also face political obstacles from Iran hardliners in Congress.

With files from CBC News

now