Biden Must Not Waver on Recognizing the Uyghur Genocide | Opinion

The Biden administration is reportedly waffling on whether or not to continue labeling China's campaign against millions of Chinese Uyghurs a "genocide." Setting aside the hypocrisy of abandoning months of pledges to "get tough" on China and place human rights "at the core of U.S. foreign policy," a decision to repudiate the Trump administration's designation of this horror would also be a major strategic misstep.

A declaration of genocide is rarely convenient, not least when your relationship with the accused is as complex as the U.S.-China relationship. Among nations, there is no more grave an allegation, and the moral weight of the term necessarily limits states' rapport and avenues for diplomacy. The outgoing administration further complicated the issue by formally breaking out the "g-word" the day before Biden took office, leaving his team no time to plan for the ramifications of such a consequential indictment. Nonetheless, inconvenient as it is, China's "intent to destroy, in whole or in part" its Uyghur minority, in the words of 1948's Genocide Convention, cannot go unchecked.

The State Department's designation followed a well-trodden path of organizations, parliamentarians, experts and even U.S. senators in recognizing China's ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. Most recently, an independent legal opinion by prominent London-based lawyers concluded that sufficient evidence exists to establish "a very credible case that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur people in [Xinjiang] amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide," according to international law.

But we already knew this. A video of hundreds of shaved, bound and blindfolded Uyghur men being loaded onto trains and 13 tons of hair shorn for Uyghur scalps gesture to a harrowing reality: China is conducting a purge of the Uyghur people that includes systemic rape, forced mass sterilization, torture and unprecedented surveillance-terror operations, among other atrocities. As Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping himself requested in 2014, China now uses "the organs of dictatorship" to show "absolutely no mercy" against the Uyghurs. And as China dismantles with impunity what remains of Uyghur society, multinational companies profit from supply chains stained by forced Uyghur labor.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken CARLOS BARRIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

But calling out China's genocide is not just the right thing to do—it also carries strategic advantages. Beijing cares about its deteriorating public image, and even the much-constrained Chinese public is showing signs of uneasiness about the Xinjiang situation. If China's genocide were more widely acknowledged, one wonders if Germany would be so keen to sign up for trade deals with the Chinese dictatorship—or if Beijing would have such success in co-opting multilateral institutions like the UN's Human Rights Council for its authoritarian ends. It is far more difficult to justify signing 5G deals with a genocidal regime than with merely a dictatorial one. And with enough buy-in, recognition of China's genocide could even open up China to prosecution in the International Court of Justice—laying bare China's hollow multilateralism.

If the Biden administration were sincere in its pledge to be tough on China, the president has multiple options in addition to the genocide label. He could, for example, push the International Criminal Court to stop shirking its duty as it pertains to Xinjiang. He could also better use the instruments of U.S. power to support communities and nations under Beijing's thumb. Samantha Power, who has been nominated to run the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) (and who made her career criticizing American inaction on genocide), will also have an opportunity to put her money where her mouth is. At a time when developing countries are forced to defend and even contribute to China's genocidal activities under pressure from Beijing's rival development schemes, USAID could mobilize its resources to help wrest vulnerable governments from Chinese dependence and support ailing Uyghur diaspora communities abroad.

The Biden administration could further demonstrate its human rights bona fides by sponsoring a draft resolution before the UN General Assembly that condemns China's actions in Xinjiang, publicly naming and shaming Chinese perpetrators, and instigating a much-needed conversation on boycotting Beijing's upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. Such measures would go a long way toward disrupting Beijing's multilateral ambitions and help America build international consensus against China's totalitarian threats.

Conversely, we know what happens when we ignore genocide. The Clinton administration, another presidency that talked a big game on human rights, dragged its feet on recognizing genocide in Bosnia until President Clinton's re-election prospects were affected in 1995 by the perishing of 100,000 lives. When more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, growing evidence suggests that political will—not lack of evidence—kept Clinton from acting. The Uyghur case is distinct and does not (yet) include mass killings, but there is no doubt that dithering on genocide has devastating consequences.

Biden has a variety of options to both counter China and uphold human rights. Wavering on Uyghur genocide is not one of them.

Ivana Stradner and Bill Drexel research foreign affairs at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.