On his last day as the U.S. secretary of State, Mike Pompeo officially declared that the Chinese Communist Party’s actions against Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang constitute “genocide” and “crime against humanity.” Many countries, including American allies, criticized the CCP’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. Pompeo’s announcement, however, marks the harshest condemnation by any country and makes the United States the first and the only country to designate CCP’s abuse in Xinjiang in such powerful terms.
The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944, in response to Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of Jewish people. It’s a word that brings to mind images of mass killing and triggers strong emotional reactions such as terror.
The United Nation defines “genocide” as any acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” such as “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” So “genocide” is never a designation to be used lightly.
The Plight of the Uighurs
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Pompeo writes his announcement is the result of “an exhaustive yearslong investigation,” which finds the CCP’s abuses of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang meet the majority criteria of UN definition of genocide.
Uighur Muslims are Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims of Central Asia. Today most of them live in northwest China’s Xinjiang region. They have a distinctively different language, culture, and religion from China’s Han majority. Even before the U.S. State Department’s investigations, there have been numerous news reports about the Chinese government building a mass surveillance system in Xinjiang and putting more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in so-called “re-education” camps, although most have no criminal background and have never been charged with any crimes.
These camps are surrounded by barbed wire fences and have armed guards stationed at the entrances. Once inside, Uighurs are not allowed to leave or receive visitors. Omnipresent cameras monitor everything. Uighurs are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP and renounce Islam, sing praises for communism, learn Mandarin, and became forced laborers for Chinese companies. A survivor describes these “re-education” camps as places Uighurs are “systematically dehumanized, humiliated, and brain-washed.” An international tribunal also found evidence of forced organ harvesting inside these camps.
Uighur women reportedly suffer the worst: rape, sexual assaults, forced sterilization, and forced abortions inside the camps. After an international outcry, the Chinese Embassy in Washington deleted a tweet that shamelessly declared Uighur women had been “emancipated” and were “no longer baby-making machines.”
According to Pompeo, one key factor in determining the atrocities in Xinjiang rise to the level of genocide is the CCP’s efforts to “stop Uighur women from giving birth via forced abortion and sterilization.” Outside the camps, however, Uighur women are no safer, and there are reports of forced marriages to Han Chinese men as well as forced “co-sleeping arrangements” in which Chinese men are assigned to monitor the wives of Uighur men who were sent to camps.
An Erasure of History
Besides these unspeakable human sufferings, Uighurs are losing their religious sites and cultural heritage. An investigation By the Guardian finds more than two dozen mosques and Muslim religious sites have been partly or completely demolished in Xinjiang. Researchers believe hundreds of smaller mosques and shrines have been bulldozed but they lack access to records to prove it definitively. With their adults locked away and mosques razed to the ground, Uighur children will grow up without any knowledge of their cultural and religious identity.
In the final analysis, what the CCP has done to Uighurs is a systematic elimination of Uighur culture, faith, identity, and population — genocide. Indeed, in Pompeo’s words, “Not every campaign of genocide involves gas chambers or firing squads.”
After repeated denials, the Chinese government finally admitted in late 2018 that it has put Uighurs in what it terms “vocational training centers,” where Uighurs are “taken care of” by the Chinese government to learn life skills. Beijing even amended state law and then backdated it to legitimize its detention of Uighurs. In November 2019, The New York Times’s reported leaked Xinjiang Papers — a 400-page collection of classified documents including speeches by Chinese leader Xi Jinping —reveal Xi is directly responsible for the genocide of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Beijing likes to point to the collective silence from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey as proof that it has done nothing wrong to Uighurs. Yet the shameful silence from these countries simply reflects the economic power of China’s coercion.
Thanks to the relentless reporting of Western journalists and the courageous testimony from Uighurs who survive the camps, the world now understands the scope of what China has done. In July 2019, more than 22 countries — including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan — issued a statement condemning China’s arbitrary detentions of Uighur and other minorities in Xinjiang, and called on China to end such practices immediately. Talk is cheap, however, and China has defiantly ignored international criticism.
America Leads the Way Condemning Uighur Treatment
Giving credit where credit is due, the United States is the only country that has taken series of sincere and genuine actions to hold the CCP accountable for its human rights abuses.
In October 2019, the Trump administration imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials who are “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in” the detention of Muslims in Xinjiang, and added eight Chinese companies to its export blacklist for these companies’ role in assisting the Chinese government’s effort of building the mass surveillance of Uighurs and other minorities.
In June, Trump signed the Uighur Human Rights Act, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.
In July, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on several senior officials of the CCP for their roles in human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and other religious minorities in Xinjiang. The sanction includes Chen Quanguo, a member of CCP’s elite 25-member Politburo, which is the most powerful political body in China. No previous American sanctions have ever reached a CCP official at this senior level.
In December, the Trump administration banned all cotton and cotton products imports from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of China’s largest cotton producers, citing evidence of XPCC’s reliance on “slave labor” of detained Uighur Muslims.
Then finally, on Jan. 19, 2021, the United States became the first country to designate the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang as a “genocide.” The designation carries legal and moral implications.
The Rest of the World Must Step Up
By being the first country to call out the CCP’s genocide, Pompeo delivers one final gift to the Biden administration and another to the rest of the world. Although Tony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said in his Senate confirmation hearing that he agrees China is committing “genocide” in Xinjiang, he may face difficulty making this designation in his official capacity. Many interest groups the Biden administration is beholden to will prevent Blinken from calling China out because they don’t want to upset their economic interests in China.
By making the genocide designation on his last day in the office, Pompeo removed a challenging task for his successor, making it easier for the Biden administration to take tough actions to hold Beijing accountable, and providing the new administration powerful leverage it can use in any future negotiations with Beijing.
The rest of the world is hungry for America’s leadership to counter the CCP’s aggression. Since the United States is still the leader of the free world, Pompeo’s announcement provides clarity and a strong dose of courage. Other nations, especially U.S. allies, will hopefully follow suit. The more countries acknowledge that China is committing “genocide” in Xinjiang, the harder it is for these governments to fail to take action.
As Pompeo notes:
The genocidal blows struck against the Uighurs aren’t localized to Xinjiang; they are also an offense against the concept of universal human dignity that America’s founders championed. In the anguished cries from Xinjiang, the U.S. hears the echoes of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
The United States has taken a stand and provided moral leadership. For the sake of humanity, other nations can no longer remain silent and indifferent.