Pompeo’s declaration of ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang presents Biden with early challenge for China

Human rights groups say up to 2 million people, mostly Muslims, have been held in large fortified camps in Xinjiang since 2017, where they have been reportedly subjected to political indoctrination and abuse. China has always denied such claims and argues that the camp system in Xinjiang is necessary to combat religious extremism and terrorism.

While Washington had previously sanctioned officials in Xinjiang and blocked some imports related to forced labor, Tuesday’s statement is the first time it has officially used the term genocide.

Genocide is, according to the United Nations, “the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. The declaration, while not resulting in any automatic sanction, marks a rare step for the US government, which has historically shown some reluctance to tie the genocide designation to an ongoing crisis.

And it will be up to the new Biden administration, which has argued to label the situation in Xinjiang as genocide, to take action on this issue, or to wither in the face of an aggressive Beijing trying to force a “reset” on its terms.

This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows people walking past a screen displaying images of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Kashgar, western Xinjiang.

Bad timing

Pompeo’s choice to make the Xinjiang declaration at the last minute, in an action that was largely lost in the drama of the presidential transition, frustrated many researchers and human rights activists who have long advocated for such a designation.
“Don’t credit Trump’s architects of China’s chaotic politics for the eleventh-hour gestures they have first opposed for years,” Xinjiang historian James Millward, written in a Twitter thread denouncing what he said was Pompeo’s “hypocrisy” about it.

Millward pointed out that the Trump administration had blocked multiple attempts by Congress to take action against Xinjiang, both in 2018 and 2019, as the president pursued a trade deal with China, while Pompeo sought to s ‘to give credit for revealing atrocities revealed by journalists. and researchers “years before Trump toppled his” good friend “Xi.”

More than anything else, Pompeo’s last shot through the Beijing arc appears to have been an attempt to tie the hands of the new administration.

“The wave of restrictions and sanctions enacted (against China) in the final months of the Trump administration (are) intended to make it politically impossible or technically difficult for the new administration to go back,” Scott Kennedy, Chinese analyst at Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote this week. “Understanding how to deal with this legacy will be the main foreign policy challenge of the new administration.”
But while the new designation could potentially complicate Biden’s relationship with Beijing, it could also provide him with a source of leverage. Already, Biden’s candidate for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, has said he agrees with the “genocide” designation.

Reset with conditions

Beijing is seeking to influence Biden’s policy, with talks of a reset while signaling potential repercussions if it continues with its predecessor’s hawkish stance towards China.

Chinese state media have been celebrating the end of the Trump administration in recent days.

Hours before Trump left the White House for the last time, the official Xinhua News Agency tweeted in English a picture of the US Congress with the words “Good riddance, Donald Trump!”

Also on Wednesday, China enacted new sanctions against Pompeo and several other former Trump officials who Beijing said had “planned, promoted and executed a series of mad maneuvers that have gravely interfered with China’s internal affairs, undermined them. China’s interests, offended the Chinese people and seriously disrupted Sino-US relations. “

The measures bar former officials “and members of their immediate families” from entering China, Hong Kong and Macau, and bar them “and their associated companies and institutions” from doing business with China . This could prevent those sanctioned from taking on lucrative post-administration roles with China-focused think tanks or consulting firms, a consideration that could hopefully prompt new Biden officials to take firm positions on these issues. .

Speaking on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused “Pompeo and other anti-Chinese and anti-communist forces” of fostering “various misunderstandings on matters related to Xinjiang.”

As the main Chinese hawk of the Trump administration, which has criticized Beijing over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Pompeo is a figure of hatred for Chinese diplomats and the country’s tightly-controlled state media, which in the past week of the Trump administration ran several stories welcoming his imminent exit.
In an article before Biden’s inauguration, Xinhua said that “one of the world’s most important bilateral relations stands at a critical crossroads.”
“Getting Sino-US relations back on track depends on the new US administration,” Xinhua said, adding that Washington should “seize new opportunities for cooperation” on issues such as climate change, while avoiding ” red lines “, as a growing engagement with the democratic and de facto independent island of Taiwan.

“President Biden repeatedly underlined the word unity in his inaugural address,” Hua, the spokesperson said Thursday. “I think that’s exactly what current Sino-American relations need. Because over the past four years, some anti-Chinese politicians in the United States have told too many lies and instigated too much hatred and divisions for personal gain. “

Early challenge

How the Biden administration is handling the Xinjiang issue could be a major test of that relationship. If Blinken is serious about maintaining his predecessor’s designation, that probably needs to be followed by further sanctions, or some sort of international action, otherwise Washington risks recognizing an ongoing genocide and standing by as it happens.

But international action could be undermined by the way Pompeo made the statement.

“A statement that genocide is taking place in a foreign country is a political act, not a legal conclusion, and its impact therefore depends entirely on the reputation and credibility of the speaker”, Kate Cronin-Furman, Assistant Professor in Human Rights at University College London, wrote this week. “Pompeo announced his determination at the worst possible time (along with the United States) at the lowest point of his position in the international community.”

The international community as a whole has also shown little eagerness to act on this issue.

Last month, the European Union decided to sign an investment deal with China, despite concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and active lobbying from some new officials. Biden.

“The stories coming out of Xinjiang are sheer horror. The story of Brussels is that we are ready to sign an investment treaty with China,” EU lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt said at the time, rejecting promises. supposedly regarding forced labor contained in the agreement. “Under these circumstances, any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on.”

British lawmakers who tried to block their government from continuing to trade with China were also frustrated. This week, the country’s parliament narrowly rejected an attempt to restrict deals with countries found guilty of genocide, a move aimed directly at China. While activists vowed to continue the fight in the House of Lords, Pompeo’s statement – which came in the middle of the debate – ultimately failed to sway a majority of MPs.

Biden may have more influence in Brussels and London than Trump ever has, and he’s certainly spoken of the need to rebuild America’s international reputation after four years of Trump. But whether he uses his position to pressure for action on Xinjiang, or for a harder line on China in general, remains to be seen.

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