Police watch as Muslims leave a mosque after morning prayer in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region © Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

The Trump administration has characterised the repression of Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province as genocide hours before Joe Biden was set to be inaugurated as president.

“I believe this genocide is ongoing and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” said Mike Pompeo, secretary of state.

Mr Pompeo also accused China of crimes against humanity on his final full day in office, citing the forced sterilisation and torture of some of the “more than a million” civilians he said were detained under the direction of the Chinese Communist party.

He called on “all appropriate multilateral and relevant juridical bodies to join the United States in our effort to promote accountability for those responsible for these atrocities”.

Mr Pompeo added that the US state department would continue to investigate and make evidence available to appropriate authorities and the international community.

The Trump administration has repeatedly censured Chinese officials over its alleged treatment of Uighurs but had stopped short of designating it a genocide.

On Wednesday, Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said: “Pompeo‘s comment on Xinjiang is just another one of his ridiculous lies. Pompeo is a clown . . . Genocide has never happened in China and will never happen in China.” 

The Biden team had referred to the oppression of Uighurs as genocide during the 2020 US presidential campaign, saying that Mr Biden stood against it “in the strongest terms”. Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, told a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he agreed with Mr Pompeo’s designation.

Senior state department officials had considered taking the step for more than a year but stopped short because of political considerations at higher levels, according to several people briefed on the matter.

Ben Sasse, a Republican senator who sits on the Senate select committee on intelligence, said the decision was “good and right, but it’s late”.

“The United States isn’t taking the Uyghur genocide seriously,” he added. “A lot of folks in the Trump Administration wanted to talk about China primarily in terms of a trade deficit, and a lot of folks in the Biden Administration want to talk about China as merely a competitor.”

Sam Brownback, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, has spent years campaigning on behalf of Uighurs during his stint in the Trump administration. Uighurs have regularly featured at Trump administration events in support of religious freedom. 

Mr Pompeo called on China to release all arbitrarily detained persons “and abolish its system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labour”.

He also said Beijing should cease coercive population control measures, which he said included forced abortion, forced birth control and the removal of children from their families.

China regularly denies that it mistreats Uighurs and has sought to limit scope for discussions about human rights at the UN.

Sophie Richardson at Human Rights Watch, whose campaigners have documented abuses against Uighurs for 25 years, welcomed the move but added that a multilateral approach was needed. Mr Trump withdrew the US from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018.

Richard Gowan, a UN expert at International Crisis Group, said that although the US had worked closely with European counterparts to raise the issue of the Uighurs at the UN over the past two years, many countries that have sided with the US against China over Xinjiang would find this last-minute intervention “unhelpful”.

UN secretary-general António Guterres will come under pressure to affirm the US position, Mr Gowan said. But this could be difficult because Mr Guterres will need the backing of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council — which includes China — to secure reappointment later this year.

Mr Biden’s team has vowed to harden its approach to China with bipartisan support, although it also plans to seek co-operation in some areas such as climate change.

Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Beijing

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