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CvT: How Will Biden Confront the Xinjiang Crisis?

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The US declaration of “Genocide” in Xinjiang: an overview

On the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared ongoing “genocide” in the home of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s far western Xinjiang region. Pompeo set precedent as the first state official in the world to make a formal denunciation against the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, declaring that the Chinese state is attempting to “destroy” the ethnic minority group. The following day, Beijing announced sanctions against 28 Americans, including Pompeo, presumably in response to the declaration. With the timing of both Pompeo and Beijing’s escalating activity, the ball is now squarely in the court of the Biden administration to decide the US’ prevailing stance on the matter.

The Biden administration’s stance

While the Biden administration will be reviewing the Trump administration’s China-related policies and actions, it has become apparent that Biden intends to keep the pressure on Beijing – particularly in regards to the alleged human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. During his senate confirmation hearing, the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, stated, “The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.” Blinken further reaffirmed his thoughts on a January 27th press conference when he confirmed, “My judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uyghurs and that hasn’t changed.” Expanding upon Blinken’s stance was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee as US Ambassador to the UN, when she stated that the State Department was reviewing the decision to declare genocide in Xinjiang given “all of the procedures were not followed” when the designation was made, but clarified that the State Department intends to follow the proper procedures “to ensure that that designation is held.”

China’s vehement rebuke

The Chinese government has vehemently denied all accusations of genocide, and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi has stated, “The US should stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, which all matter to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Rebuking Pompeo’s declaration of internment camps in Xinjiang, Beijing has defended the camps as centers for the re-education and training of Uyghurs that provide a chance to learn Mandarin and cultivate skills for the purpose of finding employment in the future. Furthermore, Chinese officials have declared that the camps reduce religious extremism and poverty among Uyghurs, and are necessary to prevent a repeat of past terrorist attacks, such as the 2014 Kunming railway station attack, in which eight knife-wielding assailants linked by Chinese authorities to a Xinjiang separatist movement killed 31 civilians and injured over 140 others.

The future of US policy

Before Pompeo’s formal declaration, the Trump administration had already adopted a prescription of sanctions and import bans to confront human rights-related issues in Xinjiang. In July 2020, the US sanctioned Chen Quanguo, the current Chinese Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang widely believed responsible for overseeing what Pompeo has condemned as “internment camps” in Xinjiang. Leading up to Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration banned the import of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, along with any finished products made from those materials. While it falls on Biden’s desk to either maintain or shift from his predecessor’s policy, given the predominating stance across the aisle within Congress against China’s alleged human rights abuses, it appears likely that the new administration will continue to uphold Washington’s current position on Xinjiang.

Looking forward: working with allies

Biden has reiterated his intent to work intimately with allies and rebuild traditional US alliances. While some EU countries appear willing to collaborate with the US in the technology sphere, there still remains a general tarnish to the US’ reputation as a reliable long-term partner following a period of isolationist behavior that marked the former administration. This is reinforced by concerns that the Biden administration could just be a temporary stage of relief for the EU before the US elects another populist leader in the 2024 presidential election.

As part of his alliance rebuilding efforts, Biden and other top officials have called for a “Summit for Democracy” to unite democratic nations, likely with the intent of countering Chinese influence as one of the unstated but undeniable goals. Meanwhile, the EU has called for a EU-US technological alliance through the EU-US Trade and Technology Council to counter Chinese technological ambitions via setting technological standards. The US has already started its own campaign to counter such ambitions by blacklisting Huawei, Xiaomi, and other Chinese tech companies, and some EU countries joined the efforts by also banning Huawei from their networks.

The notable exception, however, is Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel has been reluctant to take a hard stance against China given the strong trade relationship between the two nations. Merkel has also emphasized the practicalities of taking such a stance against Beijing, and stated her opposition to the formation of Cold War-style “blocs.” Due to its central role in the EU, Germany’s position represents a significant challenge to Biden’s vision for a united front, as the German stance on Huawei and other Chinese tech giants serves as a litmus test for how far the country is willing to push back against China’s increasing threat to global security.

Going forward, to subscribe traditional European allies to a common vision of outcompeting China, Biden will need to expand his pitch from one of shared political values to that which aligns broader economic interests as well. Only through this approach will the new administration be able to bridge concerns over any economic blowback from Beijing while also isolating concerns over a potentially evanescent US presence in the post-Biden global order.

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