The designation is only the third time in history the US has officially accused another government of attempting to destroy a people. Though largely symbolic, the bipartisan move could help pave the way for trade negotiations to be blocked and further sanctions to be implemented on the world’s second largest economy.
The Communist Party is estimated to have detained up to 1 million Uighur Muslims in re-education camps in north-western China. It has also been accused by human rights groups of forced sterilisation and ethnic cleansing. The Chinese government has denied the claims, arguing the camps are part of an anti-terrorism initiative and accused the US of attempting to smear and discredit China.
The label has never been officially applied to a superpower before. George W Bush’s administration was the first to apply it to civil-war crimes in Darfur in Sudan in 2004, while former president Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry described Islamic State’s actions in Iraq and Syria as genocide in 2016.
The condemnation now threatens to cement hostility between China and the US deep into the next presidency as countries grapple with how to deal with an increasingly assertive Beijing and its growing economic weight.
Australia did not join the US in labelling the repression a genocide, noting the decision by the US government and calling for international observers to be allowed into China.
“Australia’s views on the human rights abuses in Xinjiang are clear and well known. We continue to join with key international partners to express our longstanding and serious concerns, which are reflected across the Australian community,” a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Marise Payne said. “We have consistently raised reports of arbitrary detention, restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, pervasive surveillance and forced labour both in bilateral discussions with China and in the United Nations.”
Yellen, the former chair of the US federal reserve, said Treasury was “prepared to use the full array of tools” to address China’s economic coercion, amid claims of intellectual property theft and trade strikes.
Haines said she would commit more intelligence resources: “Our approach to China has to evolve and essentially meet the reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today”.
In London, the declaration has given renewed impetus to a push by a group of rebel conservative MPs seeking to give the High Court the power to effectively block trade deals with any country that it deems has committed genocide.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday narrowly avoided losing a vote by 319-308 that would have seen the British government forced to revoke trade deals on those grounds. The British Chamber of Commerce in China and business leaders have urged the government to push on with a post-Brexit trade deal with Beijing to bolster the local economy.
The bill, which passed the House of Lords but not the Commons, was propelled by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a ginger group of international MPs with more than 150 members across a dozen countries, including Australia.
Lord David Alton, an IPAC member and co-sponsor of the amendment in the Lords, said he would re-draft amendments and send it back to the Commons.
“The fight does not end here,” he said. “We will continue to do all we can to ensure that Uighurs and other victims of alleged genocide have a route to justice through UK courts.”
The US designation and the UK legislation are expected to propel campaigns in Australia for Canberra to take further action on China’s human rights abuses. Beijing hit Australia with half-a-dozen trade strikes in 2020 after it led calls for an investigation into the coronavirus, and criticised China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.