The Trump administration has determined that China has committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" in its repression of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, delivering an embarrassing blow to Beijing a day before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is to take office.
U.S. officials briefing reporters on the move said in a call that "an exhaustive documentation of (China's) own policies, practices and abuse in Xinjiang" viewed by Pompeo led him to make the determination that such acts had been committed since at least March 2017.
"After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," Pompeo said in a statement.
"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy UIghurs by the Chinese party-state," he added.
The move is certain to strain further already frayed ties between the world's top two economies, which have plummeted to their lowest level in decades in the last year of President Donald Trump's administration.
The rare determination follows intensive internal debate after Congress passed legislation on Dec. 27 requiring the U.S. administration to determine within 90 days whether forced labor or other alleged crimes against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are crimes against humanity or a genocide.
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"This is a decision that we do not take lightly," one of the U.S. officials on the call said. "It has gone through a lot of process and a lot of analysis. The Secretary made the determination in his role... that this is the tool that we need to deploy at this time in order to advance this vitally important cause."
China has been widely condemned for complexes in Xinjiang that it describes as "vocational training centers" to stamp out extremism and give people new skills, but which others have called concentration camps. Beijing denies accusations of abuse.
Biden's campaign declared, before the Nov. 3 U.S. election, that genocide was occurring in China's western Xinjiang region.
The U.S. decision does not automatically unleash any penalties, but it means countries will have to think hard about allowing companies to do business with Xinjiang, a leading global supplier of cotton. Last week the United States imposed a ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.