WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Trump administration has determined that China has committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" by repressing Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday (Jan 19), delivering an embarrassing blow to Beijing a day before US president-elect Joe Biden is set to take office.
Pompeo said he made the move - which is certain to strain further already frayed ties between the world's top economies - "after careful examination of the available facts," accusing the Chinese Communist Party of crimes against humanity against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities since at least March 2017.
"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state," Pompeo said in a statement.
China has been widely condemned for its Xinjiang complexes, which it describes as "vocational training centres" to stamp out extremism and give people new skills and which others have called concentration camps. It denies accusations of abuse.
The rare US determination follows intensive internal debate after Congress passed legislation on Dec 27 requiring the US administration to determine within 90 days if forced labour or other alleged crimes against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are crimes against humanity or a genocide.
Biden's campaign declared, before the Nov 3 US election, that genocide was occurring in Xinjiang.
But Pompeo's move will ensure an especially difficult start to the new administration's relations with Beijing, with US-China ties having plummeted to their lowest level in decades during the last year of President Donald Trump's administration.
A spokesman for Biden's transition declined to comment on a possible genocide determination before the new administration takes office on Wednesday.
China's Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but last week rejected as "lies" a congressional report that said "crimes against humanity - and possibly genocide - are occurring" in Xinjiang.
'Encourage others to speak out'
The US decision does not automatically unleash any penalties, but it means countries will have to think hard about allowing companies to do business with Xinjiang, a leading global supplier of cotton.
Last week, the United States imposed a ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.
"We're hoping that the determination today will encourage others to speak out... and to also join us in taking actions to hold those responsible for these atrocities," a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
An independent UN human rights panel said in 2018 that it had received credible reports that at least one million Uighurs and other Muslims had been detained in Xinjiang.
Faith leaders, activists and others have said crimes against humanity, including genocide, are taking place.
In the past 30 years, the US State Department has declared a genocide occurred in at least five situations - Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, Iraq in 1995, Darfur, Sudan in 2004, and in areas under Islamic State control in Iraq in 2016 and 2017.
The last-minute move prompted criticism from opponents, who especially cited the Trump administration's reluctance to make the same determination for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar, saying this was a purely political move.
Under international law, crimes against humanity are defined as widespread and systematic, whereas the burden of proof for genocide - the intent to destroy part of a population - can be more difficult to prove.
The State Department officials declined to say if Pompeo consulted with Biden's team, but noted there had been bipartisan support on the Uighur issue for a number of years.
A US official said that while there was no mandatory legal response to the determination, it did trigger a review of visas for entry to the United States.
Beth Van Schaack, a senior official who worked on war crimes issues under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, said before Pompeo's announcement that a genocide determination could "have real repercussions that could go to the billions of dollars... if states were to really look hard and say, 'Do we want to be doing business with a regime that is tolerating this sort of conduct in Xinjiang?'"