WASHINGTON — The Biden administration declared China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide in an annual human rights report Tuesday, formalizing its dire assessment of a campaign of mass detention and sterilization of minority groups in the Xinjiang region.
The move comes amid a sharp plunge in relations between the world’s two largest economies following a tense meeting of top diplomats in Alaska and underscores the Biden administration’s willingness to spotlight atrocities regardless of the impact on sensitive bilateral relations.
“Genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during the year against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” reads the report.
In unveiling the document, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said human rights were going in the “wrong direction” in “every region of the world,” calling out attacks on freedoms in Russia, Uganda, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Belarus and elsewhere.
Blinken sought to demonstrate a clear break with the Trump administration’s approach to human rights by sharply rebuking a commission setup by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo that prioritized religious liberty and property rights while dismissing LGBTQ and abortion rights.
“There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” Blinken said. “Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration.”
Blinken also reversed a Trump-era decision to scrap the report’s sections on abortion rights, saying that will appear in the future.
The China section of the report says that genocide against minority groups in Xinjiang continues and includes “the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians; forced sterilization, coerced abortions, and more restrictive application of China’s birth control policies; rape; torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained; forced labor; and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.”
Beijing has vociferously denied the claims of genocide and sought to underscore the mistreatment of Black Americans and Washington’s destabilizing wars in the Middle East.
Pompeo first officially declared a genocide in Xinjiang during the waning days of the Trump administration. Blinken affirmed Pompeo’s assessment during his confirmation hearing, but the word’s inclusion into Tuesday’s report formalizes the outlook as an official U.S. government assessment.
“Using the term genocide in the report indicates profound concern in the administration about appalling Chinese government human rights violations against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Turkic communities,” said Sophie Richardson, a China expert at Human Rights Watch.
The move may also put further pressure on the Biden administration to punish China for its alleged actions. “The next step is to map out a strategy to back an independent investigation, gather evidence and pursue accountability,” Richardson said.
Blinken’s relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, got off to a rocky start during a two-day meeting in Alaska on March 18 and 19. Before the first formal discussions even began, the U.S. and Chinese delegations harshly criticized each other in extended improvised remarks, which resulted in both sides claiming a breach in diplomatic protocol.
During the report’s unveiling at the State Department, Blinken was asked if his condemnations of China and Russia could come at the expense of cooperation from the two powers on other issues, such as the military crackdown in Myanmar. Blinken suggested that no trade-off was necessary.
“Whether it’s China or Russia or anyone else, we’re not standing against any of those countries,” Blinken said. “We’re not trying to, for example, contain China or keep it down. What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights and a rules-based international order.”