The United States declared Tuesday that China is carrying out genocide against the Uighurs and other mostly Muslim people, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dramatically raising pressure over Beijing's sweeping incarceration of minorities on his last full day in office.
"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.
"We will not remain silent. If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future," he said.
Pompeo's vociferous criticism of Beijing has been a hallmark of his tenure but he had earlier danced around directly alleging genocide, saying repeatedly that the treatment of Uighurs was reminiscent of Nazi Germany's policies.
Pompeo urged all international bodies including courts to take up cases over China's treatment of the Uighurs and voiced confidence that the United States would keep raising pressure.
Rights groups believe that at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are incarcerated in camps in the western region of Xinjiang.
Witnesses and activists say that China is seeking to forcibly integrate the Uighurs into the majority Han culture by eradicating Islamic customs, including by forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are both forbidden by their faith.
China denies wrongdoing and contends that its camps are vocational training centers meant to reduce the allure of Islamic extremism in the wake of attacks.
Unlike many decisions by Pompeo seen as boxing in Joe Biden, the incoming president had called for more pressure on China on human rights with his campaign last year using the term genocide.
Antony Blinken, Biden's pick to succeed Pompeo, agreed with the genocide determination, saying in response to a question at his confirmation hearing, "That would be my judgment as well."
Blinken and other Biden nominees all promised firm action against China, although Pompeo's statement potentially allows the next administration to avoid the expected blowback by Beijing.
- Culmination of pressure -
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, hoped that the genocide determination would lead to further steps such as a boycott of next year's Beijing Winter Olympics.
"The implications are enormous. It's unthinkable to continue 'business as usual' with a state committing genocide and crimes against humanity," he said in a statement.
The Trump administration has already taken a number of steps to pressure China over its treatment of the Uighurs, including blocking all imports of cotton from Xinjiang -- one of the major global producers of yarn used in textile manufacturing.
Pompeo -- described this week by Beijing as a "praying mantis" -- has not been shy about criticizing China but made the determination after extended debate on the legal implications at home and abroad.
Previous administrations have been cautious about using the term. George W. Bush's administration described Sudan's scorched-earth campaign in Darfur as genocide, while Barack Obama's administration said likewise about the Islamic State extremist group's mass killings, rape and enslavement of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called on the United States to declare that China is carrying out genocide against the Uighurs, saying that evidence was increasingly clear.
In a study last year, German researcher Adrian Zenz found that China has forcibly sterilized large numbers of Uighur women and pressured them to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas. China denied the account, saying that Uighur women were breaking free from "extremism" by using contraception.
Pompeo in his statement called on China to "abolish its system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labor" and "cease coercive population control measures, including forced sterilizations, forced abortion, forced birth control, and the removal of children from their families."
He also urged China to "end all torture and abuse" in custody and allow Uighurs and other minorities to emigrate.