WASHINGTON - In the final hours of the President Donald Trump's administration, the United States Tuesday formally labeled the Chinese government's policies targeting ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang as "genocide."
"After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the PRC [People's Republic of China], under the direction and control of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement Tuesday.
The United States has for years criticized China's detention and reeducation policies in Xinjiang but has held off formally declaring the policies as a genocide.
Reports from non-government organizations, journalists and former detainees have documented a wide-ranging campaign of repression against Uighurs. The United Nations estimated at least one million Muslim Uighurs are held in internment camps.
Chinese officials describe them as "vocational education centers" for job training, rejecting any claim that authorities are engaged in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
FILE - Residents line up inside a vocational training center in Artux, in western China's Xinjiang region, Dec. 3, 2018. Critics say China uses some of these facilities as detention camps for forced labor.
Now, senior U.S. officials say the determination will trigger new reviews and visa issues for entry into the United States. It may also expand the number of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who have been targeted for visa sanctions and financial sanctions for taking part in the human rights abuses in the region.
The U.S. could also prosecute Chinese officials linked to the genocide in U.S. courts, or bring the issue of oppression against Uighurs before the United Nations Security Council and other human rights bodies.
The U.S. government formally declared China's repression of Uighurs as genocide only after a broad review of evidence. In recent years, the U.S. government issued genocide determinations for atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region in 2004 and the Islamic State terror group's targeted killings of ethnic Yazidis in Iraq and Syria in 2016.
U.S. officials said exhaustive documentation of the PRC's actions in Xinjiang confirms that since at least March 2017, local authorities dramatically escalated their decades-long campaign of repression against Uighur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz.
Tuesday's determination comes just one day before the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has been critical of Beijing's Xinjiang policies, is set to take office.
"The forced detention of over a million Uighur Muslims in western China is unconscionable. America should speak out against the internment camps in Xinjiang and hold to account the people and companies complicit in this appalling oppression," Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019.
Last year, a Biden campaign spokesperson declared the Chinese action against Muslims in the Xinjiang region as "genocide."
"The unspeakable oppression that Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China's authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told Politico in a statement.
Refugees International President Eric Schwartz welcomed Pompeo's statement designating China's treatment of Uighurs as genocide.
"As reflected in numerous reports by journalists and scholars, the evidence of genocide is significant and substantial. The secretary's statement underscores the importance of appropriate international investigations and prosecutions of officials for the crime of genocide in Xinjiang," he said in a statement.
But Schwartz also questioned why Pompeo has "declined to make a similar finding of genocide against the state of Myanmar for its vicious mass attacks against the Rohingya population beginning in August 2017."
Republican Senator Ben Sasse said the determination is "good and right," but "late," and called the Chinese Communist Party a "genocidal dictatorship."
"The United States has an obligation to meet this challenge head on and take the side of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang who are raped and tortured," Sasse said in a statement.
The latest move follows a recent U.S. ban on cotton and tomato-based imports from Xinjiang over concerns of slave labor. Last week, Canada joined Britain in announcing steps to ban the import of goods from Xinjiang over concerns of forced labor and other human rights abuses.