On the last day it could, the Trump State Department officially declared that the Peoples’ Republic of China is committing “genocide” in Xinjiang Province against the mostly Sunni Muslin Uighr minority, the previously dominant group in the province. New SecState Antony Blinken has publicly stated that he agrees with this judgment. However, reportedly the State Department is reviewing this decision, as it is doing with many other parts of US foreign policy, including such things thought to be fairly straightforward such as rejoining the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran that Biden ran on rejoining and should. So whether or not this last minute action by Pompeo at State remains official or not is up in the air at the moment.
There is no question that the PRC’s policy towards the Uighurs is simply awful, not remotely defensible. Ir involves having large numbers of people in reeducation camps as well as lots of torture. This is combined with the more general program of simply having Han people fully dominating the province, which parallels a similar program in Tibet, although somehow currently the central government is not engaging in quite as unpleasant programs regarding the native ethnic Tibetan population as is happening regarding the Uighurs.
Which brings us to this question of whether or not the indubitably bad things the central PRC government is doing to the Uighurs constitutes genocide or not. Prominent comparative economist, Gerard Roland, who knows a great deal about China and is at UC-Berkeley, has put up a post on Facebook arguing that it is not. His argument is that the true meaning of the term involves actual killing, a systematic effort to actually kill off members of a group, with what happened in the Holocaust and more recently in Rwanda, being prime examples. If this is the criterion then, no, for all of its horror, what is happening in Xinjiang is not genocide. Roland argues that the term should not be watered down from its more horrific meaning, with indeed genocide something that does happen and can happen again. So it should be saved for those fully true cases. I happen to agree with this.
The argument for why the term is appropriate takes the form of saying that trying to exterminate a culture deserves to have the term be applied to it. That is not a completely ridiculous argument. And it does seem that the PRC central government is certainly out to massively damage and reduce Uighur culture, although perhaps not completely eliminating it. I know that they do have Uighurs represented in national bodies, who show up in ethnic clothing, and so on. So I do not think they are out to completely obliterate the culture. But it is clear that Uighurs will be expected to acknowledge the dominance and superiority of the central government rule and culture. But it does not seem that there is a move to completely end the culture, and more importantly, for all the camps and torture, no effort to actually physically elminate the Uighurs by killing them.
I understand that the Biden administration faces a difficult decision about what line to take with China. Relations have deteriorated between China and the US and also with many other nations. I do not wish to go through all the issues that are out there, but while Trump engaged in a lot of unnecessarily aggressive actions, such as his trade war, it is also the case that China has engaged in various actions that have made its neighbors less happy with it, such as aggressive actions on borders and claims on territories legally belonging to other nations. There are clearly grounds for the Biden administration to take a less friendly position than was taken during the Obama administration. But there are many areas from dealing with climate change to dealing with terrorists and also the pandemic where there are grounds for cooperation. By all reports Biden seeks some kind of reasonably balanced approach. That will be hard to achieve, and there will be hard decisions coming up, such as whether the US will lead a move to boycott next Winter’s Olympics in Beijing over the Uighur issue. Clearly the prelude to that and some other issues will be how this review about the genocide question is resolved. I understand many will be unhappy and critical, but I hope that they undo this last minute Trump admin decision.