With less than 24 hours before leaving his office, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Tuesday has declared that China is committing “on-going” genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
“I believe this genocide is on-going, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement on his last day in office as part of Donald Trump’s administration.
President Joe Biden’s incoming Secretary of State, Antony Blinken has said he agrees when asked about Mr. Pompeo’s announcement at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, to which he answered: “That would be my judgment as well.”
He added: “On the Uyghurs I think we’re very much in agreement. And 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.”
China reacted angrily, dismissing the statement as “outrageous lies”.
“We see this so-called determination as a piece of waste paper,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “We hope the new US administration can have their own reasonable and cool-minded judgment of Xinjiang issues.”
While the Pompeo statement puts pressure on China, it does not automatically introduce any fresh penalties.
Rights groups believe that China detained up to a million Uyghurs over the past few years in what the state defines as “re-education camps”.
China has been widely accused of using detention camps in Xinjiang for forced labour, particularly in the cotton industry.
An investigation by the BBC in 2019 suggested that children in Xinjiang were being systematically separated from their families in an effort to isolate them from their Muslim communities.
Recent research says China has forced Uyghur women to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices in an apparent attempt to limit the size of the Uyghur population.
Tensions with China have been a defining feature of Donald Trump’s term, from trade policies to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Biden’s team made a similar argument last August, saying the Uyghurs had suffered “unspeakable oppression… at the hands of China’s authoritarian government”.
China says it is fighting “three evil forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism in the far western region of Xinjiang, where most of the 11 million Uyghurs live. It says its “training measures” in Xinjiang are necessary to combat these.
Xinjiang is now covered by a pervasive network of surveillance, including police, checkpoints, and cameras that scan everything from number plates to individual faces.
The Chinese government says the measures are necessary to combat separatist violence in the region, but it is accused of exaggerating the threat in order to justify repression of the Uyghurs.
Last week, Mr Trump’s administration banned the import of cotton and tomato products from the Xinjiang region of China, where the majority of Uyghurs live.
Xinjiang accounts for nearly a fifth of world cotton production, the US estimates. (Source: BBC)