US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has imposed new sanctions on China and said its policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang constitute a “genocide”.
Mr Pompeo made the determination just 24 hours before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. There was no immediate response from the incoming Biden team, although several members have been sympathetic to such a designation in the past.
Many of those accused of having taken part in repression in Xinjiang are already under US sanctions, and Tuesday’s move is the latest in a series of steps the outgoing Trump administration has taken against China.
Since last year, the administration has steadily ramped up pressure on Beijing, imposing sanctions on numerous officials and companies for their activities in Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
Those penalties have become harsher since the beginning of last year when President Donald Trump and Mr Pompeo began to accuse China of trying to cover up the coronavirus pandemic.
On Saturday, Mr Pompeo lifted restrictions on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials, prompting a stern rebuke from China, which regards the island as a renegade province.
Five days ago, the administration announced it would halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang with Customs and Border Protection officials saying they would block products from there suspected of being produced with forced labour.
Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so the order could have significant effects on international commerce. The Trump administration has already blocked imports from individual companies linked to forced labour in the region, and the US has imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials with prominent roles in the campaign.
China has imprisoned more than a million people, including Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps, according to US officials and human rights groups.
People have been subjected to torture, sterilisation and political indoctrination in addition to forced labour as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority.
China has denied all the charges, but Uighur forced labour has been linked by reporting from The Associated Press to various products imported to the US, including clothing and electronic goods such as cameras and computer monitors.
China says its policies in Xinjiang aim only to promote economic and social development in the region and stamp out radicalism. It also rejects criticism of what it considers its internal affairs.