Pompeo Accused China Of Genocide. Experts Say That Term Is Complicated

Jan 21, 2021
Originally published on January 24, 2021 10:53 am
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In his final act as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity. Pompeo was referring to policies toward ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims, mainly in western China. President Biden's new national security adviser agreed with that assessment. Numerous experts, as well as news reports on this program, have documented the widespread use of everything from detention camps to forced birth control.

NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch weighs the evidence of genocide.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Last Friday marked seven years since Ilham Tohti was detained. Tohti, a Uighur scholar, taught at a university in Beijing before China's Xinjiang policy began to harden. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, who now lives in Virginia, welcomed the news.

JEWHER ILHAM: I really do hope the situation can go towards, like, a more positive direction.

RUWITCH: In the years since her father's detention, it hasn't. Rights groups say China has built a vast network of detention camps across Xinjiang. By some estimates, a million or more Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained for things like praying after meals or traveling abroad. There are accusations of forced labor, too, and this summer, allegations of widespread, systematic use of forced birth control.

William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London, thinks it may not technically amount to genocide.

WILLIAM SCHABAS: The allegations are serious enough in China. I don't want to sound dismissive of them, but it sounds like this is an abusive use of the term.

RUWITCH: The burden of proof in genocide cases is high, according to a U.N. convention. And there must be no other plausible explanation for the conduct. Beijing says its facilities in Xinjiang are training centers and the government's actions are designed to combat terrorism.

SCHABAS: What the United States government did was a political declaration. It's not a legal determination.

RUWITCH: James Millward, a Xinjiang expert at Georgetown University, agrees.

JAMES MILLWARD: This isn't really about finding a court to try these cases. China has already showed that it will simply ignore these international findings if it doesn't like them.

RUWITCH: China has responded angrily, calling Pompeo a doomsday clown. But Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden's pick for secretary of state, said this at his Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday.


ANTONY BLINKEN: On the Uighurs, I think we're very much in agreement. And the - forcing men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.

RUWITCH: But now what? Millward from Georgetown says this could give cover to other governments critical of China, but fearful of its wrath. And the Biden team is keen to rekindle alliances to confront China. Coordinated sanctions are one possibility. This may also help amplify calls by rights groups for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which China is scheduled to host.

MILLWARD: I mean, it's going to be the next chokepoint for international opprobrium, right?

RUWITCH: That growing international attention has Jewher Ilham optimistic.

ILHAM: I do see one day this will end because my father used to tell me there's an end to everything in the world, and there's no eternity. And I believe it includes the bad things.

RUWITCH: And she hopes that good things will come soon.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say that President Biden's national security adviser agrees that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims. While Biden's nominee for secretary of state agrees with this assessment, his national security adviser hasn't publicly weighed in on the issue.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.