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US declares China's treatment of Uighurs and ethnic minorities 'genocide'

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accuses China of 'committing genocide and crimes against humanity' in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are being sent to prison camps
The Chinese flag behind razor wire at a compound in China's western Xinjiang region on 4 June 2019 (AFP/File photo)

The US State Department, in one of its final acts under President Donald Trump, has declared that China is committing "ongoing" genocide against its Uighur Muslim minority. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that since 2017, China had "dramatically escalated their decades-long campaign of repression" against Uighur Muslims and members of other minority groups. 

Pompeo, who has widely reported aspirations to run for president in 2024, urged Beijing to "immediately" stop its persecution against the Uighur group, threatening further legal action. 

"Their morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices, and abuses are designed systematically to discriminate against and surveil ethnic Uyghurs as a unique demographic and ethnic group, restrict their freedom to travel, emigrate, and attend schools, and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech, and worship," Pompeo said.

'I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state'

- Mike Pompeo

Rights groups have long accused China of conducting forced sterilisations and abortions on Uighur women.

In August, the incoming Biden team termed the persecution of Uighurs a genocide, but the Trump administration did not make a formal declaration, reportedly over concerns of its impact on trade talks. 

More than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim people in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang have been incarcerated in camps in a bid to root out Islamic customs and forcibly integrate minorities.

Uighurs showing adherence to conservative Islamic customs - including praying, fasting, abstaining from alcohol, growing a beard or wearing Islamic clothing - have been rounded up for the camps.

China has denied the accusations of genocide and other human rights violations in Xinjiang, with a government spokesperson for the district holding a news conference last week to dispute the charges. 

"This utterly untethered fabrication of 'genocide' regarding Xinjiang is the conspiracy of the century," spokesperson Xu Guixiang 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."

'Never again'

Pompeo, on the other hand, compared the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang to the systematic killing of about six million Jews and millions more including political prisoners, people with disabilities and members of persecuted minorities during the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany during World War II. 

"Since the Allied forces exposed the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the refrain 'Never again' has become the civilised world’s rallying cry against these horrors," Pompeo said. "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."

Pompeo then went on to list the findings of the department's documentation of China's actions, including accusing it of committing crimes against humanity and genocide. 

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"I believe this genocide is ongoing and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state," he said.

"If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future," Pompeo said in his statement on Tuesday, highlighting the string of sanctions the Trump administration has imposed against China. 

The declaration is expected to be one of the last moves of the Trump administration as Biden, who has vowed to speak out against China's abuses against Uighur Muslims, is set to take office at noon on Wednesday. 

Eric Schwartz, the head of the Refugees International advocacy group, welcomed Pompeo's statement but questioned why the same reasoning had not been applied to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar.

"As reflected in numerous reports by journalists and scholars, the evidence of genocide is significant and substantial. The secretary's statement underscores the importance of appropriate international investigations and prosecutions of officials for the crime of genocide in Xinjiang," Schwartz said.

"At the same time, I'm baffled and deeply concerned that Secretary Pompeo has declined to make a similar finding of genocide against the state of Myanmar for its vicious mass attacks against the Rohingya population beginning in August 2017."