WASHINGTON — The State Department declared on Tuesday that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its wide-scale repression of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, including in its use of internment camps and forced sterilization.
The move is expected to be the Trump administration’s final action on China, made on its last full day, and is the culmination of a yearslong debate over how to punish what many consider Beijing’s worst human rights abuses in decades. Relations between the countries have deteriorated over the past four years, and the new finding adds to a long list of tension points. Foreign policy officials and experts across the political spectrum in the United States say China will be the greatest challenge for any administration for years or decades to come.
”I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, adding that Chinese officials were “engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.”
The determination of atrocities is a rare action on the part of the State Department, and could lead the United States to impose more sanctions against China under the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said last year through a spokesman that the policies by Beijing amounted to “genocide.” Other nations or international institutions could follow suit in formally criticizing China over its treatment of its minority Muslims and taking punitive measures. The determination also prompts certain reviews within the State Department.
The finding is the harshest denunciation yet by any government against China’s policies in Xinjiang. Genocide is, according to international convention, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Mr. Pompeo, State Department lawyers and other officials had debated for months over the determination, but the matter had gained urgency in the Trump administration’s final days. As was common with most China policy, the issue of Xinjiang had long pitted administration officials against one another: Mr. Pompeo and other national security aides advocated tough measures against Beijing, while President Trump and top economic advisers brushed aside the concerns.
The Chinese government has rejected previous accusations of genocide and other human rights violations in Xinjiang. At a news conference in Beijing last week, officials condemned American politicians and groups for making such accusations.
“This utterly untethered fabrication of ‘genocide’ regarding Xinjiang is the conspiracy of the century,” Xu Guixiang, a deputy director of propaganda for Xinjiang told the news conference. “People of all ethnic groups independently choose safe, effective and appropriate birth control measures. There has been no such a problem of ‘mandatory sterilization’ in the region.”
To deflect criticism from U.S. officials, Chinese officials have also taken to underlining some of the Trump administration’s vast governance failures, including a death toll of more than 400,000 from the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly assault on the Capitol by a mob incited by Mr. Trump.
Before the new condemnation from Washington, the strongest statement by a government entity declaring that China’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide came from a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee. Last October, the subcommittee concluded that the Chinese Communist Party was culpable of the crime.
Mr. Pompeo and senior State Department officials made the decision just days before Mr. Biden takes office. The finding could complicate his administration’s dealings with Beijing, but it also offers a source of leverage. Mr. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, plans to mention the “growing rivalry with China, Russia and other authoritarian states” at a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday afternoon, according to a copy of his opening statement.
In the days before the decision, State Department officials had argued over whether China’s actions in Xinjiang met the standard for genocide or whether they fell under crimes against humanity, which has a lower standard, said American officials familiar with the debate. Mr. Pompeo decided to use both.
One U.S. official said the best rationale for the genocide label on China was the use of forced sterilizations, birth control and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.
Several State Department officials said the decision was rooted in trying to meet policy goals; they said they hoped the move would spur other nations to take a harder public line against China on this and other issues.
Some officials opposed to the action pointed out that the department never made a determination on whether the Myanmar government had committed genocide against the ethnic Rohingya Muslims, despite strong evidence of the crime. In 2017, the department said Myanmar had committed “ethnic cleansing.”
Mr. Biden, a critic of China’s human rights record during his decades in office, has used forceful language to describe its repressive policies. In August, he released a statement calling China’s actions “genocide” and pressed the president to do the same. Mr. Trump, he insisted, “must also apologize for condoning this horrifying treatment of Uighurs.”
Mr. Biden was referring to an account by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, who disclosed in his memoir that the president told Xi Jinping, the leader of China, at a summit in 2019 to keep building internment camps in Xinjiang, “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Mr. Bolton wrote that Mr. Trump had made similar remarks on a trip to China in 2017.
Mr. Bolton and other aides said Mr. Trump repeatedly ignored their recommendations to impose sanctions over Xinjiang to avoid jeopardizing trade negotiations with China. Mr. Trump has expressed little concern for human rights, and for most of his term publicly referred to Mr. Xi as a friend.
For years, Democratic and Republican members of Congress have urged the administration to take a more aggressive stand. An annual report released on Thursday by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said there was evidence that “crimes against humanity — and possibly genocide — are occurring” in Xinjiang. It stressed that budget legislation passed in December requires that the U.S. government determine within 90 days whether China had committed atrocities in the region.
Some lawmakers made a last-minute push for the Trump administration to issue a determination against China.
In October 2019, the Trump administration blacklisted police departments in Xinjiang and several Chinese companies. It has since issued other sanctions, including against senior Communist Party officials. On Wednesday, it announced a ban on imports of products made with cotton and tomatoes from the area.
The State Department’s determination further underscores how Xinjiang has become a central human rights issue for the United States and its allies.
China has for decades exercised heavy-handed control over Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities, who make up more than half of the region’s population of 25 million. For the largest groups, their Islamic religion and Turkic language and culture set them apart from China’s Han majority.
Tensions sharply worsened from 2009, when Uighurs taking part in ethnic riots killed about 200 Han in Urumqi, the regional capital, after earlier tensions and violence. Chinese security forces began a sweeping crackdown. Attacks and more crackdowns occurred across Uighur towns in the years afterward, as well as in some cities outside Xinjiang.
Since 2017, Xinjiang leaders pressed by Mr. Xi have begun or stepped up policies intended to transform the Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities into loyal, largely secular supporters of the Communist Party. The State Department determination said the Chinese government had committed “crimes against humanity” since “at least March 2017.”
Security forces have sent hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and Kazakhs — possibly a million or more by some estimates — to indoctrination camps intended to instill loyalty to the party and break down adherence to Islam. The Chinese government has defended the camps as benign vocational training schools and disputed the estimates of inmate numbers, without ever giving its own. Former inmates and their families who have left China have described harsh living conditions, crude indoctrination and abusive guards.
The swelling camps drew growing international condemnation, including from human rights experts who advise the United Nations as well as the United States and other nations. Journalists and scholars began writing articles on the camps and a sophisticated high-tech surveillance system in Xinjiang in 2017, well before foreign governments started discussing the issue.
The indoctrination camps, however, have formed only part of the Chinese Communist Party’s broader campaign to drastically transform Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities. Other measures include labor transfers, schooling and cultural policies, and population controls.
Under Mr. Xi, Xinjiang has expanded and intensified longstanding programs to shift Uighurs and Kazakhs from rural areas to jobs in factories, cities and commercial farming. The Chinese government has said that these work transfers are entirely voluntary and bring prosperity to impoverished peoples. But some programs have set targets for the numbers of people relocated for work and restricted recruits from choosing or leaving their jobs — hallmarks of forced labor.
Schools have largely discarded classes in Uighur, pressing students to learn in Chinese. Uighur academics who have sought to preserve and promote their culture have been arrested, and Uighur-language publishing has been heavily curtailed. Officials have forced children into boarding schools, separated from their parents.
Programs in Xinjiang have also sought to stem the growth of the Uighur population by forcing women to undergo permanent sterilization or have birth-control devices inserted, Adrian Zenz, a researcher in the United States who has focused on Xinjiang, said in a report last year. Chinese researchers have challenged the numbers and conclusions in Mr. Zenz’s report while not disputing that the government wants to bring down the population growth of Uighurs.
The Chinese embassy in Washington said on Twitter this month that Uighur women had been “emancipated” and were “no longer baby-making machines.” Twitter later removed the comment and told a reporter the post had violated rules against “dehumanization.”