While Washington has previously sanctioned officials over Xinjiang and blocked some imports linked to forced labor, Tuesday’s declaration is the first time it has officially used the term genocide.
Genocide is, according to the United Nations, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The declaration, while carrying no automatic penalties, marks a rare step for the US government, which historically has shown some hesitancy in attaching the genocide designation to an ongoing crisis.
And it will fall to the new Biden administration, which has been supportive of calling the situation in Xinjiang a genocide, to take action on this issue, or wilt in the face of an aggressive Beijing attempting to force a “reset” on its terms.
Millward pointed out that the Trump administration blocked multiple attempts by Congress to take action on Xinjiang, in both 2018 and 2019, as the President pursued a trade deal with China, while Pompeo sought to take credit for exposing atrocities that were brought to light by journalists and researchers “years before Trump flipped on his ‘good friend’ Xi.”
More than anything else, Pompeo’s final shot across Beijing’s bow seems to have been an attempt to bind the hands of the incoming administration.
Reset with conditions
Beijing is looking to influence Biden’s policy, with talk of a reset while signaling potential repercussions should he continue with his predecessor’s hawkish stance towards China.
Chinese state-run media has been celebrating the end of the Trump administration in recent days.
Hours before Trump was due to leave the White House for the last time, state-run news agency Xinhua tweeted in English an image of the US Congress with the words, “Good riddance, Donald Trump!”
The measures bar the former officials “and their immediate family members” from entering China, Hong Kong and Macao, and forbids them “and companies and institutions associated with them” from doing business with China. That could prevent those sanctioned taking up lucrative post-administration roles with think tanks or consulting businesses focused on China, a consideration that Beijing may hope will influence incoming Biden officials against taking strident positions on these issues.
Speaking Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying blamed “Pompeo and other anti-China, anti-communist forces” for fostering “various misunderstandings on Xinjiang-related matters.”
“President Biden has repeatedly emphasized the word unity in his inauguration speech,” Hua, the spokeswoman, said Thursday. “I think this is exactly what the current China-US relations need. Because in the past four years, some anti-China politicians in the US have told too many lies and incited too much hatred and divisions out of personal gains.”
Just how the Biden administration handles the issue of Xinjiang could be a major test of this relationship. If Blinken is serious about maintaining his predecessor’s designation, then presumably this must be followed by additional sanctions, or some kind of international action, otherwise Washington risks acknowledging an ongoing genocide and standing by as it happens.
But international action could be undermined by the manner in which Pompeo made the declaration.
Nor has the wider international community shown any great hurry to act on this issue.
“The stories coming out of Xinjiang are pure horror. The story in Brussels is we’re ready to sign an investment treaty with China,” European lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt said at the time, rubbishing supposed promises regarding forced labor contained in the deal. “Under these circumstances any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on.”
Biden may have more influence in both Brussels and London than Trump ever did, and certainly he has spoken of the need to rebuild America’s international standing after four years of Trump. But whether he uses his position to lobby for action on Xinjiang, or a tougher line on China in general, remains to be seen.