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International relations

US human rights report calls China's actions in Xinjiang 'genocide'

Report lays out claims of torture, forced sterilization and persecution against Uyghur community

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. Department of State's 2020 human rights report classified China's actions in Xinjiang as "genocide and crimes against humanity" for the first time, as tensions between the two countries over Beijing's treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority population continue to rise.

"The report released today shows that the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference Tuesday, pointing to a list of human right abuses around the world, with China's conduct in Xinjiang on top.

"Too many people continued to suffer under brutal conditions in 2020," the 45th Country Reports on Human Rights Practices reads. "In China, government authorities committed genocide against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and crimes against humanity including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilization, and persecution against Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups."

Up until this year, the report -- which covers nearly 200 countries and whose annual submission to Congress is required by law -- had only referred to "mass detention" and "arbitrary or unlawful killings" in Xinjiang.

"These annual human rights reports are important. But of course, they're not enough," Blinken said. "We will use a broad range of other tools to stop abuses and hold perpetrators to account" including by imposing sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury Department most recently sanctioned two Chinese officials in connection to Xinjiang on March 22. Beijing then hit two commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom with sanctions in an apparent tit for tat.

On Jan. 19, President Donald Trump's administration determined that Beijing committed genocide in the nominally autonomous region. The Biden campaign had also called China's conduct in the region a "genocide" as early as August.

The report, which only covers the year 2020, also criticized China's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and lack of freedom of expression -- including the silencing of early COVID-19 whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang.

The report's release Tuesday came less than two weeks after a meeting between Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. At the meeting in Alaska, Yang pushed back against U.S. claims on China's human rights violations and said Washington was not in a position to criticize Beijing.

Last week, China also released its own annual human rights report on the U.S., blasting its rival's records on issues including systemic racial discrimination, gun violence and the government's mishandling of the pandemic that has resulted in over half a million lives lost.

Over the past week, there has also been a growing Chinese consumer boycott of Western brands that have taken against cotton from Xinjiang over concerns of forced labor, including American companies such as Nike and New Balance.

Blinken said Tuesday that "we will hear from some countries, as we do every year, that we have no right to criticize them, because we have our own challenges to deal with" including addressing profound inequities such as systemic racism.

But the difference is that the U.S. deals with these problems in the daylight instead of sweeping them under the rug, said the top U.S. diplomat.

"And in fact, that's exactly what separates our democracy from autocracies," Blinken said.

The secretary of state also maintained that by criticizing Beijing's human rights records Washington is not trying to contain China or keep it down.

"What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights, and a rules-based international order that has served us and countries around the world very, very well," he said.

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