The outgoing US government’s assessment that China has committed “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang was among the last acts of the Donald Trump administration that observers said could cement its legacy on Beijing and reduce Joe Biden’s ability to change course.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has used his final days in office to define the ruling Chinese Communist Party as the “central threat of our time”, crediting the Trump administration for “changing the global conversation on China”.
Pompeo announced on Tuesday that Beijing’s policies against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang constituted genocide, following days of placing sanctions on mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials for the political crackdown in Hong Kong, restricting visas for Chinese individuals responsible for militarisation of the South China Sea, and removing restrictions on US officials engaging with Taiwanese counterparts.
Beijing has bristled at Pompeo’s statements, with Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying calling his legacy one of “lying diplomacy” that has “not only bankrupted his own reputation but also rendered irreversible damage to the national image and interests of the United States”.
Hua on Wednesday dismissed the Xinjiang designation as a “waste of paper and a lie” and described Pompeo as a “doomsday clown”.
China’s embassy in the United States said on Wednesday that Pompeo had “disregarded facts, groundlessly attacked and deliberately smeared China’s policies”, insisting Beijing’s actions targeted ethnic separatists, religious extremism and terrorism rather than ethnic minorities.
Observers said the final salvoes fired by Trump’s administration would push Biden to take stronger action on issues such as Xinjiang after he is inaugurated as president on Wednesday, but that he would still have room to reshape China policy to address its failings.
As the strategic rivalry has intensified between China and the US, a bipartisan consensus in Washington has grown for a tougher China policy, albeit through differing methods.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said at a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he was “very much in agreement” with Pompeo’s determination that Beijing’s abuses against Uygurs and other minorities in its Xinjiang region amounted to genocide.
He said that the US needed to ensure it was not importing goods made with forced labour in Xinjiang, avoid exporting technologies to further Chinese repression, and ensure Taiwan had the ability to defend itself.
“I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” Blinken said. “I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.”
Scott Kennedy, senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a commentary on Tuesday that although the Trump administration sought to “intentionally handcuff its successors”, Biden’s government had room to reshape policy around its belief that US-led multilateralism was needed to meet the challenge of China.
This would mean working more closely with allies on China, as well as reversing certain Trump actions by rejoining the World Health Organization and rolling back tariffs, while maintaining and expanding others such as delisting Chinese firms and sanctioning China over human rights abuses, he said.
“Although the departing team deserves credit for loudly sounding the alarm bells on the dangers presented by a Xi Jinping-led China, on many issues but particularly on economic ones, it did not address that challenge with effective policies that changed the facts on the ground in America’s favour,” Kennedy wrote.
“A China that ignores the rules, does not provide reciprocity, and is a threat to the international order requires a clear-eyed and firm response from the United States, but it does not justify policies that do not work simply because they can be labelled ‘tough’.
“The transition from one administration to the next should not simply add up to more or less decoupling with China but [involve] potentially a new conception of the relationship and how it fits into the larger plans the administration has for the country and the world at large.”
On Xinjiang, analysts said that the new US designation would help the US to lobby other countries to work more closely against Beijing’s treatment of its ethnic minorities.
Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the Biden administration could hit the ground running, including by sanctioning more individuals and entities for human rights violations in Xinjiang, designating Uygurs as a priority group for refugee status, and working to combat forced labour in Xinjiang.
“They can move straight to next steps for US policy,” Enos said. “Now China knows that there are consequences for its actions, and should it consider taking similar moves against other ethnic and religious minorities, it will not be without foreign policy and national security consequences.”
Genocide and crimes against humanity are both serious crimes codified under international law after World War II.
Darren Byler, a researcher at the Asian studies centre at the University of Colorado, said the genocide assessment would probably be used in legal actions to force multinational firms to assess their supply chains to Xinjiang, but that the impact for Uygurs in the region was not yet clear.
“I expect to see other nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom make similar determinations,” he said.
“It is a bit too soon to tell what other ramifications might come from it down the line. It will certainly make Uygur asylum claims stronger and I anticipate calls to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics [from Beijing] will grow in the coming months, but I don’t know what it will mean for Uygurs in China.” - Additional reporting by Catherine Wong