“This genocide is ongoing, and…we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday, on the last full day of the Trump administration.
“Since at least March 2017, local authorities dramatically escalated their decades-long campaign of repression against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz,” Pompeo said.
At a press conference Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused Pompeo of spreading “poison” with his genocide declaration.
“This is just one of many of his absurd, big lies,” Hua said in response to CNN’s question. “In our view, Pompeo’s so-called declaration is a piece of scrap paper.”
Hua singled out Pompeo himself for special criticism. “This American politician, who is notorious for lying, is turning himself into a doomsday clown and joke of the century,” Hua said.
The State Department’s declaration won’t automatically trigger any immediate penalties, but Peter Irwin, senior program officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said it would have a powerful symbolic impact, both in the US and internationally.
“Determinations like these are only meaningful insofar as they’re supported by tangible, sustained pressure,” he said. “The worst thing that the US government can do, especially when we’re in the midst of a transition of power, is to become self-satisfied with this powerful rhetorical statement about the crisis without following it up.”
A Washington-based advocacy group, Campaign for Uyghurs, welcomed the designation as a step toward justice.
“My own sister’s 20 year prison sentence on false charges is clearly linked to this genocidal intent by the Chinese regime. She, and all Uyghurs, deserve justice,” she added.
Darren Byler, a Xinjiang expert and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Colorado, said he anticipated the ruling would strength Uyghur claims for asylum in the US as well as increase pressure to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. “But I don’t know what it will mean for Uyghurs in China,” he said.
Concern over human rights issues in Xinjiang is a bipartisan issue in the US. However, the announcement in the final hours of the Trump administration could further complicate the incoming Biden administration’s approach to and dealings with Beijing.
In his statement, Pompeo also said he had “directed the US Department of State to continue to investigate and collect relevant information regarding the ongoing atrocities occurring in Xinjiang, and to make this evidence available to appropriate authorities and the international community to the extent allowable by law.”
The new measures are designed to ensure that all British organizations “are not complicit in, nor profiting from, the human rights violations in Xinjiang,” according to the UK Foreign Office.
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this article.