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How Biden Should Respond to the Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang

The US has to address the ongoing cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Here are three ways to start.

Words: Michael Clarke
Pictures: Simon Sun

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is the site of the largest mass repression of an ethnic and/or religious minority in the world today. Since 2016, researchers estimate that at least one million people have been detained without trial in the XUAR. In the detention centers — framed by Beijing as “transformation through re-education” centers — individuals are subjected to deeply invasive forms of surveillance and psychological stress as they are forced to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices and to endure forms of forced labor. Outside of the detention centers, more than 10 million Turkic Muslim minorities in the region exist in a carceral state where they are subjected to a dense network of hi-tech surveillance systems, checkpoints, and interpersonal monitoring which severely limit all forms of personal freedom.

The Trump administration had undertaken a number of measures in response to these developments, including passing the US Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Additionally, former Secretary Mike Pompeo declared that he believed “genocide” was being committed. New Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has indicated that the Biden administration shares this assessment and intends to hold Beijing to account for its actions in Xinjiang. The challenge for the incoming administration, and for the international community more broadly, is to determine the most effective means of doing so. Three measures should be prioritized by the new administration in this regard.


One of the most significant questions stemming from Pompeo and Blinken’s comments concerns the definition of the acts committed by Beijing in XUAR. Both Pompeo and Blinken explicitly asserted that China’s actions constitute genocide. The use of genocide here, however, conjuring as it does visions of the Nazi gas chambers and the attempted physical elimination of an entire people, is problematic.

Testimony from detention center survivors detail systematic physical and psychological coercion and torture of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities, including rape and sexual abuse.

The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines genocide as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that Chinese government actions in XUAR are consistent with key elements of the UN’s definition of genocide. Testimony from detention center survivors detail systematic physical and psychological coercion and torture of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities, including rape and sexual abuse. Enforced family separations and intrusive birth control — including forced sterilizations of Uyghur women — as well as targeted repression of Uyghur elites, and physical erasure of Uyghur religious and cultural sites have also been well-documented.

Yet, as some international legal experts have noted, the question of intent that is central to the UN Convention remains difficult to establish. While leaked documents demonstrate that the system of “reeducation” and surveillance in Xinjiang is the direct result of directives from the very top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they do not constitute an explicit statement of genocidal intent such as the Nazis’ Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942 that is widely seen as central to the planning and execution of Hitler’s “final solution.”

As such, the Biden Administration may be better served by examining the designation of acts committed by Beijing in Xinjiang as “crimes against humanity” as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 7) as “it is not necessary to prove that there is an overall specific intent” but rather it “suffices for there to be a simple intent to commit any of the acts listed” under the Statute. These include deportation or forcible transfer of population,  torture, rape, enforced sterilization and “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.”

Such a finding may provide the International Criminal Court (ICC) with standing to hear cases regarding “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. While China is not a member of the ICC, it would nonetheless provide a significant international platform to “name and shame” Beijing for its actions in Xinjiang. For this to happen, the Biden administration must also work to overcome the United States’ problematic history with the ICC. A commitment to ratify the Rome Statute and join the ICC by the Biden administration would present an important demonstration of the President’s commitment to base American diplomacy on the country’s democratic values of upholding universal rights and respecting the rule of law.


Tracking the interconnections between the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang, Chinese, and foreign tech companies provides two potential pressure points that can be leveraged by the US government: the access of Chinese companies and entities to components from US-based companies and the reputation of US companies connected to the supply-chain.

The Trump administration, via the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security’s (BIS) Entity List, pushed the first of these. The BIS Entity List identifies entities believe to be involved, or to pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved, in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States. In October 2019, the administration added a number of major Chinese tech companies implicated in the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang – such as video surveillance companies Dahua, Hikvision, Megvii, Yitu, SenseTime, and Yixin Science and Technology Co. Ltd, and voice recognition firm iFlytek – to the BIS Entity List as a means of limiting their ability to obtain components from US tech giants such as Intel and Nvidia that have been crucial to the development of the surveillance state.

However, restricting the access of implicated Chinese companies to US technology is an imperfect solution as these companies have simply been able to source supply chain alternatives or invest heavily to boost their own R&D capabilities in order to fill the gaps. Consequently, the Biden administration should also undertake a systematic tracking and reporting of supply chain connections between Chinese companies on the BIS Entity List and US tech companies. Such an undertaking will increase the prospect of reputational risk for US companies by making their conscious or unconscious complicity in Xinjiang’s surveillance state public.


If the Biden Administration wishes to achieve meaningful international action on Xinjiang, a broad coalition of states is required. This cannot simply be a US or even Western-led effort because it is too easy for Beijing to rebut and deflect such efforts and criticism as evidence of Western “double-standards” given the colonial and imperial records of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Australia and others in undertaking mass detention, removal and exclusion of Indigenous populations.

Rather, the Biden Administration should focus diplomatic energy on the development of a broad-based coalition of states from the developed and developing worlds. The precedent of the campaign of sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa is fitting here. While there are clear distinctions in terms of the relative strength and interconnectedness of the target state, there is also a major similarity. The CCP’s shift from a strategy of integrating Uyghurs into a Han-centered society toward one based on a racialized politics of exclusion and social re-engineering that threatens the very existence of an autonomous Uyghur culture reflects the “institutionalized discrimination” at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa.

As scholars of genocide remind us, genocide is a process, not an event. It encompasses actions beyond the mass physical extermination of a particular population. The actions that China has undertaken in Xinjiang to date — including mass internment, forced labor, family separations and forced sterilizations of Uyghur women – will, at the very least, hamper the reproduction of Uyghur culture and, at the very worst, create the conditions for the erasure of the Uyghur people.

President Biden’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January 2021 demonstrates that he intuitively understands the dynamics of genocide-as-process. The President asserted that the “Holocaust was no accident of history. It occurred because too many governments cold-bloodedly adopted and implemented hate-fueled laws, policies, and practices to vilify and dehumanize entire groups of people.” It is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Chinese government has implemented an equally cold-blooded and dehumanizing set of policies in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people. It is now up to the international community to act to ensure that Beijing is held to account for its actions.

Dr. Michael Clarke is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Visiting Fellow, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney. He is the author of “Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia: A History” and editor of “Terrorism and Counterterrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions.”

For further expert recommendations on how the Biden administration should engage with China, read After the Apocalypse: China.

Michael Clarke

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