The US Declared China Is Committing Genocide Against Uighurs — What Happens Next?

(Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

Varun Hukeri General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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In one of the final acts of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Tuesday that China’s policies against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region constitute a genocide.

A State Department press release condemned the Chinese government and its ruling Chinese Communist Party for restrictions on religious freedom, arbitrary detention and use of forced labor and torture. The U.S. is the first country in the world to formally declare China is committing a genocide.

Sophia Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, said the move does not trigger any immediate legal repercussions, although an official designation of genocide from the U.S. government is a consequential move.

“Does the use of this particular word set in motion particular administrative or legal processes? Not necessarily,” she told Foreign Policy. “But as a political and diplomatic matter, it certainly escalates the issue.”

The Biden administration is not likely to walk back the designation either. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said he agreed with Pompeo’s assessment during a confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (RELATED: Biden Introduces Foreign Policy Team, Says World Is ‘Looking Forward’ To America Leading Again)

“That would be my judgement as well,” Blinken said when asked about the designation.

Current estimates indicate China has detained up to 2 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in reeducation camps, according to Axios. Uighur activists have called China’s actions in Xinjiang an “assimilation and cultural destruction” campaign.

Multiple reports and testimonies indicate the communist regime is specifically targeting the Muslim majority population with actions like banning public prayer and surveilling mosques. An Associated Press (AP) investigation also concluded last year that China was committing “demographic genocide” through forced abortions and sterilization. (RELATED: Chinese Embassy Touts Birthrate Decline In Province Where Forced Labor Camps And Sterilization Were Reported)

Some experts argued the last-minute designation could complicate the Biden administration’s efforts on China, according to CNN. Both President Joe Biden and his secretary of state nominee have openly called out China’s human rights violations, suggesting the move could potentially act as leverage.

Under former President Donald Trump’s tenure, the Commerce Department added dozens of Chinese companies to a trade blacklist over China’s human rights violations. The State and Treasury Departments also imposed sanctions and visa restrictions on Chinese government officials responsible for carrying out “cultural genocide” operations in Xinjiang.

TOPSHOT - A person wearing a white mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uighurs asking for the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region and ask for the closure of "re-education center" where Uighurs are detained, during a demonstration around the EU institutions in Brussels on April 27, 2018. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

A person wearing a white mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Even without a formal legal structure to back a declaration of genocide, maintaining this stance could lend credibility to the Biden administration if it pursues similar aggressive action against China. Biden could, for example, ask Congress to pursue legislative action making genocide an official consideration in future dealings with China.

A similar proposal narrowly failed in the British parliament earlier this week, the AP reported. The proposal, if passed, would have the made the U.K. the first country in the world to consider genocide cases in domestic proceedings.

Given the president’s desire to play a more active role in international institutions than his predecessor, Biden could also use American influence in organizations like the U.N. to push for global action against China.

The U.S. and 38 other countries issued a joint statement at the U.N. General Assembly in October condemning China for its human rights violations in Xinjiang. An official declaration of genocide by the U.S. could potentially bring more nations on board and build a stronger consensus within the international community.

Biden will almost certainly face pressure from Beijing to rescind the designation. China’s foreign ministry referred to Pompeo as a “doomsday clown” and announced sanctions on the former secretary of state and other Trump administration officials earlier this week.

While state-backed media outlets in China appeared to celebrate Biden’s inauguration, the official declaration of genocide may have given the new president a new avenue to hold the communist regime accountable for its human rights violations.