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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club, in Washington, on Jan. 12, 2021.

ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government shrugged off a formal declaration that it has committed genocide toward Uyghur Muslim minority groups living in Xinjiang, dismissing a determination from the U.S. State Department as “not worth the paper it’s written on.”

In asserting that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity, the United States has levelled an accusation of considerable moral gravity, one that stands to influence corporate and consumer relations with the world’s most important trading country.

“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.

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That charge is backed by evidence that includes testimony from former detainees and numerous official sources from inside China itself, such as requisition documents and state media reports. Both the outgoing Mr. Pompeo and Antony Blinken, his incoming successor, have said Chinese conduct meets the definition of genocide.

But the Chinese government, which has succeeded in securing support for its Xinjiang policies from dozens of countries – including much of the Muslim world – has acknowledged no wrongdoing, delivering instead a mocking riposte to Mr. Pompeo.

“This U.S. politician notorious for lying and cheating is making himself a laughingstock and a clown by his last-day madness and this lie of the century,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday.

Xinjiang – a region where satellite images show the destruction of numerous mosques; where large numbers of people were detained for forcible political indoctrination and skills training; where children were separated from parents and placed into orphanages; where factories have been built next to prisons; where former detainees have described being tortured and forced to recite loyalty to the Communist Party; where government statistics show a sharp rise in the use of intrauterine devices and sterilization – is a place of “unity and happy life,” Ms. Hua said.

Chinese authorities have mounted a wide-reaching campaign to cast into doubt what is happening in Xinjiang, employing white papers, carefully planned tours and increasingly frequent news conferences to dismiss critics.

For some in the Uyghur community, the U.S. genocide declaration amounts to recognition of “undeniable facts, testimonies, statistics and reports that demonstrate what China has been doing in recent years against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in East Turkistan,” said Nijat Turghun, a Uyghur born in Urumqi who now lives in Sweden, where he is chairman of the Uyghur Education Association. East Turkistan is a term preferred by some Uyghurs to refer to Xinjiang.

U.S. action will “encourage other democratic states to stand against China’s atrocities,” Mr. Turghun said.

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Even among Uyghurs, however, the weight of the declaration was diminished by its timing, issued on the Trump administration’s last full day in office.

“It is meaningless to make such a strong statement a day before [Mr. Pompeo’s] departure,” said Nurgul Sawut, a clinical social worker in Canberra who has surveyed Uyghurs around the world. She worries the U.S. is using China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as a useful cudgel, one that can be cast aside when convenient.

In China, meanwhile, anger at the genocide label is likely to provoke “some unpleasant backlash,” said Timothy Grose, a scholar who specializes in Xinjiang and Chinese ethnic policy at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the U.S.

But, he added, if the Biden administration emphasizes the issue “in their diplomatic agenda, other countries will feel pressure to use equally as strong of language and, hopefully, meaningful action.”

In Canada, the Trudeau government has refrained from making a formal declaration. Instead, Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Canada will review the U.S. findings, which he called “one more step toward what needs to be a multilateral effort to address the issue.” He pledged to “push for an investigation by an international, independent body” and called on China to grant “unfettered access” to Xinjiang for the United Nations and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

China, however, enjoys considerable sway at the United Nations as a permanent member of the Security Council, which includes veto power over substantive resolutions brought before that council.

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Permanent members “by virtue of their nuclear weapons, their military power and their wealth, have a pass card that they can flash, which means they usually suffer no consequences of great weight,” said Frank Chalk, a historian at Concordia University and co-founder of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

Still, a formal U.S. genocide declaration affixes a “moral stain” to China, he said, one with consequences for companies and consumers that rely on the country for trade, investment and goods. It will also force a new reckoning for political leaders who have for decades sought to balance economic advantages of business with China against human-rights concerns.

“It will be up to Biden and, eventually, Trudeau to decide whether they’re going to stick their necks out and say, ’No, this has to stop,’ and there will be trade sanctions or investment bans,” Prof. Chalk said. “They could do a lot if they want to.”

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