A bipartisan group of congressional leaders wants to make sure that nothing sourced or made in Xinjiang province China is ever turned into a laptop or a T-shirt sold in a U.S. store.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which designates “all goods produced, wholly or in part, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as being produced with forced labor” unless U.S. Customs and Border Protection can determine otherwise by “clear and convincing evidence.”
The Uyghur are an ethnic group living in far west China. Thousands of them are being held against their will in detention centers and what Beijing calls “re-education camps”, a move that started when Xi Jinping began a crackdown on some Muslim terrorist activity in the region. Some of the men in those camps are believed to be working in cotton fields, and in factories making laptops.
Over the last month, Customs and Border Protection put a ban on products shipped by 9 companies that run the gambit from a Chinese hair extensions maker to a contract manufacturer for Google Chromebooks.
Two weeks ago, a collection of human rights groups tied to expatriate Uyghurs and the AFL-CIO sent a petition to Customs calling for a regional ban of all goods made in Xinjiang.
Customs rarely issues bans on goods from a region, but they have done so in the past, including bans on cotton imports from Tajikistan, and on tobacco from Malawi.
The House bill makes it a regional ban, if signed into law.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said today that, “The Chinese government’s widespread use of forced labor of Uyghur and other Muslim populations in Xinjiang has tainted an overwhelming amount of goods entering the global market. The actions of the Chinese government are unacceptable, and those goods are not welcome in the United States.”
During a Committee hearing on Xinjiang trade last week, New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell said that while he understand the complexity of supply chains, corporations have to work harder to know who their contractors are sourcing from, and just how those inputs are used, or finally assembled, before being sold to the U.S.
“Corporations have to take responsibilities, too,” Pascrell said. Whether it’s a major movie studio filming in the back yard of forced labor camps, Heinz buying tomatoes or Nike potentially using cotton harvested by forced labor, we need accountability,” he said.
The Senate, led by China hawks like Florida Republican Marco Rubio, is likely to take up the bill and pass it, though when is anybody’s guess.
Large brands like H&M said last month when the petition by the AFL-CIO and others was filed that they did not source any cotton from Xinjiang.
Xinjiang, made famous yet again when Disney filmed scenes from Mulan there, is the biggest cotton growing region in China. While the industry is notorious for forced labor, including child labor in some countries, China has had the spotlight shone on it due to the detention of ethnic minorities.
Human rights is expected to play a bigger role in U.S.-China trade relations should Joe Biden get elected.
The potential for a ban on Xinjiang would ring fence the province from multinationals selling to the U.S., or risk having their products held up at ports of entry. This could force companies to rethink their supply chains in the region, even if their supplier there is not using forced labor.