Crimes against humanity and genocide in the Uyghur region: Thoughts on the US determination

The following is a guest post from Professor James Millward of Georgetown University, a historian and Xinjiang specialist.

The US State Department’s determination, 19 January 2021, that CCP / PRC policies in Xinjiang to Xinjiang Uyghur Region natives constitute genocide and crimes against humanity is important. Below is a write-out of my Twitter thread about this (some is thus still in telegraphese). First I list essentials, then discuss some problematic parts of Pompeo’s statement in the context of the Trump administration’s record on the issue of PRC policies in Xinjiang.

The genocide / crimes against humanity determination follows a November Biden campaign statement calling the policies in Xinjiang “genocide.” The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the genocide assessment. We can expect this understanding to play a role in the new administration’s China policy.

To be more than rhetoric, however, such a determination must serve a strategic purpose as part of a plan. Hopefully, it will help the Biden administration rally other nations to condemn PRC treatment of Uyghurs and others, and expand the use of targeted Magnitsky-type sanctions and scrutiny of supply chains linked to Xinjiang, Xinjiang local government offices, the Bingtuan (XPCC) and Chinese and international firms that deal with these entities. EU and Britain have trade deals with the PRC pending. These findings of PRC genocide and crimes against humanity, should give the relevant parliaments pause before they rush into blanket trade deals that follow business-as-usual protocols.

Crucially, the determination identifies “crimes against humanity” as well as “genocide” in the Uyghur Region. What’s happening in Xinjiang clearly meets at least 3 of the 5 criteria of genocide as defined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide . However, that convention’s Article II requires that the acts be committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which may be a hard standard to prove even if a court can be found to take up the case.

Crimes against humanity, on the other hand, are defined more concretely by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7.  There is copious evidence that many of the acts enumerated in this statute have been taking place in Xinjiang.  Moreover, Tajikistan, Cambodia and possibly other countries that are members of the International Criminal Court have been party to refoulements of Uyghurs back to the PRC where they are subject to persecution and crimes against humanity. This, according to some international law experts, may give the ICC standing to hear cases regarding crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, even though the PRC is not a member of the ICC.  The ICC has once refused to hear such a case when put forward by two small Uyghur exile groups, but a US finding of crimes against humanity and genocide might allow for a stronger case to be made by members of the ICC.

Now my criticism of Pompeo’s hypocrisy and disingenuous, self-aggrandizing nonsense.

Pompeo, who today accused PRC of international crimes, opposes international legal institutions and  twice actually threatened the International Criminal Court for doing its job looking into crimes in Afghanistan and Palestine.

It is also unfortunate that Pompeo’s determination statement falsely claims that “[f]or the past four years, this Administration has exposed the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and called it what it is: a Marxist-Leninist regime that exerts power over the long-suffering Chinese people through brainwashing and brute force.”  There are a couple of things to say about this Cold War-ish statement.

First, Marxism-Leninism has nothing to do with it. The Chinese Communist Party is authoritarian, and thus Leninist, but hardly recognizably Marxist any more. Its current assimilationist approach to Uyghurs and other non-Han ethnic groups is actually a reversal of previous PRC policies which recognized a plurality of “nations” in the PRC—just as the USSR was a union of multiple “socialist republics” and many “nationalities” besides Russian. Xi’s China has been pushing the idea that all the minzu of the PRC are in fact elements of one super-group called Zhonghua; in a recent speech Xi even implied that all Xinjiang groups are racially related to the Han from ancient times—a throwback to the racialist arguments of the early Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek. So, Secretary Pompeo, your retro-red baiting is not relevant here. (I don’t particularly care about Marxism-Leninism, but if you don’t diagnose a problem correctly, you can’t address it correctly. We’re not fighting commies here.)

Second, and most important: Pompeo’s claim that the Trump administration spent four years exposing the Xinjiang atrocities is complete bs. Pompeo’s boss Trump and his administration in fact prevented Congress from acting for nearly two years. A Uyghur human rights act passed the Senate in Nov. 2018. It was followed by similar bills in the House and Senate through 2019, all with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. All were blocked by Trump’s administration, or prevented from coming to a vote by Mitch McConnell. One faction of the bipolar Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, opposed action on the Uyghur atrocities, believing that attention to human rights in China would upset prospects for a trade deal—a trade deal to resolve the tariff crisis Trump unilaterally created and which has achieved nothing! Indeed, the US trade deficit with China is now higher than when Trump took office; US tax-payers have paid billions in higher prices and to bail out farmers who lost markets for soy beans and other products in China and to whom Trump provided welfare payments in order not to lose votes in their states.

Third—the Trump administration’s record on the PRC repression of Uyghurs is even worse than that. Trump repeatedly expressed his approval for the concentration camps in Xinjiang. He did so in November 2017 during a visit to Beijing; In 2018 in discussions with his National Security Council Adviser he questioned the idea of sanctioning Beijing over putting Uyghurs in concentration camps, and in June 2019 at Osaka G20 Trump told Xi Jinping that he (Trump) had no objections to Uyghurs in concentration camps. In the long list of horrifying Trump statements and actions, green-lighting the mass internments of millions because of their ethnicity has to be among the worst.

Only in the spring of 2020, less than one year ago, did the bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Act come up for a vote, pass Congress, and get Trump’ signature.

Don’t give Pompeo or Trump credit for this determination today. There were good people in the US government working on this issue through that whole period, and they deserve credit. But those words and actions of the US government regarding the atrocities in Xinjiang so far come despite the unconscionable active and passive support for PRC repression of Uyghurs by Trump himself and enablers in his administration.

And please don’t keep saying Trump was “tough on China.” Trump’s approach to the PRC was characterized by self-contradiction, bluster, incoherence, petulance and absolute failure to do meaningful things even on economics, thanks largely to dissing allies and ignorance regarding the role of trade deficits in the US and global economy.

Pompeo lies that “this administration” exposed atrocities in Xinjiang. No. In fact, it was victims, victims’ family members, journalists and researchers who exposed the camps, birth suppression, separation of children from families, forced labor and other crimes against humanity in the Uyghur Region, starting years before Trump flipped on his “good friend” Xi.

Today’s finding of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Uyghur Region will be good if it actually helps. A loose cannon careens to port then starboard on a rudderless ship. A broken clock is right twice a day. Don’t credit rump Trump architects of chaotic China policy for eleventh-hour gestures they previously opposed for years.