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In a word: How does Uighur 'genocide' designation affect US policy?

Blinken agrees with his predecessor's description of what the Chinese are doing to the Muslims in Xinjiang. The question is what to do about it

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

In a call Wednesday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden made a point to express his concerns about the PRC’s human rights record — including its policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Muslim-minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. The reportedly tense conversation was the first time the two men had talked since Biden’s election win, and the first time that an American official had addressed these issues since the Trump administration officially called China’s actions in Xinjiang “genocide.”

It was on January 19 when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the ongoing atrocities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s northwest a genocide. Over one million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and Kazakhs, have been imprisoned in internment camps there since 2017. Pompeo’s declaration followed a declaration by Congress on December 27 requiring the administration to determine within 90 days whether China had committed crimes against humanity or a genocide. New Secretary of State Antony Blinken has agreed with Pompeo’s decision, saying publicly in his confirmation hearings and reiterating it afterwards, that he believes what the Chinese are doing to the Muslims in Xinjiang is indeed “genocide.”

The use of the word is considered a victory for Uyghurs living outside of China and an early challenge for the Biden administration when dealing with the PRC. Such a designation, however, does not necessarily illuminate a clear path forward. In this sense, it is worth considering the meaning of the designation, the complications it carries, and how it will affect future relations between the two countries.

First, it is important to note that the designation is political rather than legal. Thus, there are no penalties that the United States necessarily must impose on China as a matter of international law. Nonetheless, such a strong declaration would seem to imply that some obligation to act exists, particularly for those states that have ratified the Genocide Convention. Furthermore, the International Court of Justice concludes that countries “that have the capacity to influence others have a duty to employ all means reasonably available to them to prevent genocide.” 

It is unclear, however, what concrete actions states should take — “all means reasonably available” is broad and open to a variety of interpretations. For example, in the case of Darfur in Sudan, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping mission as a means of addressing rampant abuse. Certainly, deploying such a mission would fall under the category of “all means reasonably available.” However, the mission proved to be ineffective. It was still renewed, with Omar Ismail, a notable figure in the Save Darfur movement, later commenting in 2015: “It is important, but ineffective.” 

In the case of Darfur. states acted, but their actions were not enough. What is less clear, however, is what action would have been enough. With regard to XUAR, one can think of a variety of responses that would be reasonably available, important, and even obligatory. They might include sanctions, a coalition of countries going to the United Nations to apply pressure, or both. Whether these would be sufficient remains unknown. In this sense, the Biden administration’s next steps, beyond “do something,” are not obvious.    

The political nature of a genocide declaration also suggests that the reputation of the speaker matters. Perceptions are important in foreign policy — words and actions will affect how Chinese officials view their American counterparts. With respect to XUAR, these perceptions can affect how seriously others will take the genocide designation. The Chinese party-state has a poor estimation of Pompeo, with spokesperson Hua Chunying stating that he is “notorious for lying and deceiving” and calling him a “doomsday clown and joke of the century.” 

Pompeo has acted in ways that have put his credibility at risk beyond what the Chinese might think. He was accused of attacking freedom of speech on American soil with “troubling treatment of the journalists that cover him.” In addition, Pompeo has met and posed for photographs with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the individual who most likely ordered the operation on Jamal Khashoggi. He seems to have ignored the famine and disease plaguing the people of Yemen in a war the U.S. has assisted Saudi Arabia in prolonging. None of the above is to say that Pompeo’s judgment of China’s actions in XUAR is incorrect. It is to say, however, that others will not necessarily be able to separate his judgment of genocide from his previous actions. 

Second, whether to designate human rights atrocities as genocide is a fraught discussion that can hinder rather than precipitate further action. The dictionary definition of genocide, or “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group,” is a rather high bar to clear. Based on this definition alone, the atrocities in XUAR would likely not qualify as genocide, as proving deliberate extermination is very difficult. 

The United Nations’ definition, however, is much broader. While this definition also emphasizes intent, it outlines specific actions that qualify as contributing to the destruction of a group. Two that are relevant for the Uyghur case are “causing serious bodily or mental harm,” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births.” There is mounting evidence of both. 

In addition to tearing apart families with detentions, the total surveillance of Uighur people by the government, forced surpression of their culture, and recent reports suggesting widespread sexual assault in the internment camps, researcher Adrian Zenz has written a detailed analysis of measures to suppress the Uighur birthrate

Yet, in concentrating on these distinctions, there comes a risk of focusing less on the Uyghurs’ suffering and more on semantics. 

Alan Greenblatt succinctly summarizes the key issue: “the lack of agreement on what constitutes genocide has led to inaction in the face of contemporary slaughters, as well as endless arguments about whether historical events qualify for the description.” 

A noteworthy example of this is the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the time, debate focused on whether or not events could be called genocide rather than determining the appropriate response. Samantha Power, writing as the Executive Director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, points out that in the United States alone, debate went on for six weeks before then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher allowed diplomats to use the term. 

Semantic debates continued elsewhere in Washington, with journalists and government spokespeople parsing the difference between “acts of genocide” and “genocide.” Ostensibly, one purpose of a genocide declaration is to acknowledge the suffering of a particular group and then act accordingly. Acknowledgement and action, however, can be lost in endless arguments over the appropriate terminology. 

Third, this designation will be an early test for relations between the United States and China. It’s clear that the new administration supports use of the term. Accepting the designation implies an obligation to act or to risk standing by while the atrocities continue. 

To further complicate the matter, Beijing has indicated interest in resetting relations with the United States. To do so, however, China has insisted that the United States not interfere in XUAR, with its top diplomat Yang Jiechi stating that the issue is “a red line which must not be crossed.” This warning puts the Biden administration in a delicate situation, as action against China’s abuses in Xinjiang could jeopardize its other diplomatic goals. 

Thus a multilateral approach may be the best option for this administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that “strong alliances are an advantage for Washington in confronting China.” The United Kingdom is a potential ally in this regard, as an independent legal expert there has reached the conclusion that there is a “very credible case” that genocide is occuring in Xinjiang.   

If nothing else, the above points demonstrate that the designation will likely not change the lives of Uyghurs in XUAR in any significant way. What it can do is set the tone for bilateral relations going forward. This makes the Biden administration’s next move all the more important.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (shutterstock/ mccv) opposite a pro-Uighur demonstrator (shutterstock/Arnaud Brian)
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