The world has watched with shock over the past three years as the Chinese Communist Party constructed a vast, racist system of concentration camps, forced labor, and high-tech surveillance in the far-Western region of Xinjiang. Now, the U.S. government has decided to call these multifaceted horrors what they are: Crimes against humanity and genocide.
“Since the Allied forces exposed the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the refrain ‘Never again’ has become the civilized world’s rallying cry against these horrors,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement announcing the decision. “Just because an atrocity is perpetrated in a manner that is different than what we have observed in the past, does not make it any less an atrocity.”
The barbaric conduct that Pompeo has now deemed crimes against humanity and genocide stems from the Communist Party’s desire to annihilate the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims it has sought to supplant with Han Chinese settlers. As senior administration officials put it this afternoon, China’s actions aren’t at first blush the same as the mass killings at Srebrenica and in Rwanda. They are instead “a very patient evil,” designed to erase the Uyghurs over time through methods both tried-and-true and experimental.
Since “there’s no evidence of systematic mass murder,” says Adrian Zenz, the researcher who has unearthed many of the revelations that led to today’s announcement, the Party’s forced-sterilization campaign “is the strongest piece of evidence, by far” of China’s genocidal campaign. It also seems to have had a huge influence on Pompeo, who, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, called it “key in my determination that the atrocities in Xinjiang rise to the level of genocide.”
During a conference call Tuesday afternoon to discuss the announcement, State Department officials were careful to specify that China’s genocide was no more significant than its crimes against humanity. Genocide, while it has a certain gravity in the public imagination, is harder to prove than crimes against humanity under the terms of the 1948 convention; officials must demonstrate that China’s actions in Xinjiang are motivated by an intent to eliminate the Uyghurs as a people.
A senior State Department official acknowledged that proving such intent in this case is “challenging,” and that it ultimately had to be inferred before Pompeo made his determination. But given the sheer volume of internal Communist Party documents on the subject now available in the public domain, the inference is a clear one, and by verifying all of that primary-source material, U.S. officials have discerned the true intent of the CCP leaders, who have compared Uyghurs to malignant tumors and Islam to a plague. “The senior party leadership has been saying things like, ‘You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one, you need to spray chemicals to kill them all,’” noted the senior State Department official.
That such a significant move comes on the final day of the Trump administration has not been lost on observers, some of whom complain that Pompeo is leaving the Biden administration to sort through the consequences. But on the issue of China’s mass atrocities in Xinjiang, there appears to be no partisan divide: Biden himself declared on the campaign trail that the treatment of the Uyghurs is a genocide.
Those so inclined can of course view the move cynically, as a final attempt by Pompeo to burnish his legacy. But prominent Uyghur advocates certainly don’t see it that way. “I’d encourage people not to consider this as a political decision,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer who serves on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom that advocated for the determinations. “I think people should focus on what should be done next, not why it happened now.”
So what should be done next? Today’s State Department determination makes the U.S. the first country in the world to officially recognize China’s actions as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity. One hope is that other governments will follow suit, and China will begin to face a louder backlash at the United Nations, whose leadership has thus far remained silent, and from the Muslim-majority countries that have backed Beijing’s actions on the international stage. As for the U.S.’s next steps, they will largely be up to Biden and his team to decide. If they so choose, they can build on sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on individuals and companies complicit in the atrocities, and they can pursue various other courses of action in concert with American allies.
Regardless, today’s decision is the world’s most significant step yet toward holding the CCP accountable for its actions. It’s a recognition of the suffering of a persecuted people that hasn’t, until recently, been given a voice. “To put it into historical context, this is what Communist countries do, and the CCP has had blood on its hands for a very long time,” said one senior official.
Slowly but surely, the world is beginning to awaken to that reality.