Trump administration weighs accusing China of ‘genocide’ over Uighurs

The move could dramatically escalate tensions with Beijing, which denies copious reporting on the maltreatment of its Muslim minority.

People rally outside the White House to urge the United States to end trade deals with China and take action to stop the oppression of the Uighurs and other Turkic peoples on Aug. 14. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The United States is weighing formally labeling China’s brutal repression of ethnic Muslim minority Uighurs a “genocide,” two Trump administration officials said.

Activists and lawmakers have been pushing for the genocide designation in recent months, but mere consideration of the possibility by the U.S. government could further damage badly frayed ties between Beijing and Washington. It also comes in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign, in which the two sides have jousted over which candidate would be tougher on China. A spokesperson for Joe Biden noted that the former vice president supports the label — a factor that could influence President Donald Trump’s calculations.

The internal administration discussions are still at the early stages, involving working level officials at the State Department, the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the administration officials who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity. If there’s not enough consensus to use the term genocide, the administration could instead accuse the Chinese leadership of other atrocities, such as “crimes against humanity” or “ethnic cleansing.”

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien has accused China’s communist leaders of running “concentration camps” for Uighurs in Xinjiang, a northwestern province home to millions of Uighurs. A member of a United Nations human rights panel said in 2018 that China had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp,” where people are held without charge and little recourse to get legal representation to be released. More than a million Uighurs are believed to be held in such facilities.

Uighur rights groups have accused the Chinese government of torturing many Uighurs, forcing Uighur women to get abortions and be sterilized, feeding some detainees poorly and trying to wipe away their distinct ethnic culture, including forcing many to denounce Islam and chant Communist Party slogans. Beijing also uses extensive surveillance technology to track Uighurs.

Genocide declarations are rare, legally tricky and highly politically sensitive. U.S. officials have at times tried to avoid such declarations in the past, not least because, in theory, international law would compel some sort of American intervention — though not necessarily the military kind.

China is a rising power with a veto on the United Nations Security Council, so U.S. advocates of the genocide label may face higher than usual political hurdles. But Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with China on trade and the coronavirus pandemic. He may be willing to go with the genocide label, despite allegations by former national security adviser John Bolton — which Trump denies — that the president told Chinese President Xi Jinping he approves of the treatment of the Uighurs.

State Department spokespeople would neither confirm nor deny that a genocide label is under discussion. “We are working hard to encourage the People’s Republic of China to cease its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and are constantly evaluating various measures,” a spokesperson said. “We do not comment on potential actions.”

NSC spokesman John Ullyot also didn’t address the genocide discussion but did say in a statement: “The Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities also include the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority since World War II. Where the previous administration and many other world leaders delivered speeches and empty rhetoric, President Trump has taken bold action.” A DHS spokesman declined to comment.

The term “ethnic cleansing” carries little weight in international law, but U.S. officials have used it at times instead of genocide. For instance, the Trump administration called Myanmar’s mass killing and large-scale expulsion of Rohingya Muslims — which began three years ago this week — an “ethnic cleansing,” imposing sanctions on some of the alleged perpetrators.

The State Department, through its Office of Global Criminal Justice, has traditionally taken the lead on investigating and designating genocides. Under the Obama administration, it declared that the Islamic State terrorist group committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other groups in Iraq and Syria. But despite intense pressure from scholars and activists, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been unwilling to declare the Rohingyas’ case a genocide. State Department officials said that, among other things, Pompeo worries that leveling a genocide accusation against Myanmar could lead its government to tighten its embrace of China, undermining America’s influence in Asia.

The administration’s support for a Muslim community like the Uighurs would seem to be at odds with Trump’s past anti-Islam comments and his executive orders that bar the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from the United States.

But the case of the Uighurs is useful in two political contexts. One is to rally international support for Trump’s attempts to beat back growing Chinese global power. The other is as part of the Trump administration’s campaign to promote global religious freedom, an initiative designed to appeal to Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters who fear for their religious brethren in China and beyond.

The Trump administration has already imposed economic and visa sanctions on Chinese officials who have been implicated in the repression and blacklisted Chinese entities that have helped China with its persecution of the Uighurs. Earlier this summer, U.S. lawmakers passed, and Trump signed, a bill that paved the way for many of those sanctions. A genocide or crimes against humanity declaration could make it easier to refer those Chinese officials to international tribunals tasked with investigating and punishing perpetrators of genocide.

At the very least, the genocide label would be part of a “name and shame” strategy to hold China accountable and urge it to change its behavior toward the Uighurs, according to a senior administration official.

The crime of genocide is generally interpreted to cover acts committed with the intent of destroying a group “in whole or in part,” according to the United Nations. One element can include “measures intended to prevent births” within a group.

It’s unclear what sort of data, metrics and sources U.S. officials are presently turning to as they determine whether to use the genocide label. Even if they were to use the label, it’s not clear what the U.S. can do to fulfill any international obligation to try to stop the genocide, beyond imposing sanctions.

The situation “would highlight the limits of what any government can do, especially when dealing with a superpower that can block collective action at the United Nations,” a former Obama administration official said.

Earlier this year, to rebut the charges, the Chinese Embassy in Washington mounted an exhibition in its lobby with more than 40 panels giving Beijing’s side of the story. The camps, Chinese officials say, are meant to teach Uighurs vocational skills and Mandarin, so they can get jobs.