In response to years of Chinese government persecution of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, US lawmakers have announced a rebuke. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act introduced to the US Senate in March 2020 seeks to ban all imports — presumed to contain products of forced labor — from the southwestern province.
In early March, the US State Department awarded the International Women of Courage Award to Kazakh activist Sairagul Sauytbay for bringing awareness to China’s repressive policies. The Chinese government implements what it calls “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers” akin to detention facilities that discriminatorily rely on Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minority labor in Xinjiang; the labor transfer system has also coerced at least 80,000 Uyghur minorities to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019.
With bipartisan support, the new bill is the toughest yet to push back on China’s practices in Xinjiang. The legislation calls for a prohibition on all goods imports such as textiles from the region, citing risks that companies cannot pursue or ensure due diligence practices to prevent forced labor. In the bill, a “rebuttable presumption” assumes Xinjiang products fail to meet customs standards under the 1930 Tariff Act unless proven otherwise. In addition, legislators call for visa sanctions on individuals and identification of entities involved in the forced labor system.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), finds global supply chains are “increasingly at risk of being tainted with goods and products made with forced labor from [Xinjiang]” in a report corresponding to the bill. At a US Holocaust Memorial Museum event in Washington DC where the legislators unveiled the legislation to the public, speakers characterized the perpetration of forced labor and other human rights abuses such as surveillance and political indoctrination of Xinjiang Muslims as “crimes against humanity.” The Chinese government has detained at least 1.8 million minorities since 2017.
US companies including Calvin Klein, Coca-Cola, and Nike are some of 83 globally-recognized companies sourcing products from Xinjiang. Industry representatives pledge to identify risks of forced labor in their supply chains, citing the situation of unprecedented scale. The US Fair Labor Association plans to conduct due diligence for multinational firms. As Xinjiang sources as much as 84% of China’s cotton, and the country supplies 33% of apparel imports to the United States, retail goods from China are likely to contain products of forced labor. China, the largest trading partner of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, exports $463 billion worth of goods to the United States per year.
Recent media expositions prompted US lawmakers and politicians to begin a wide-scale pressure campaign on the Xinjiang situation. Leaked documents attest to Chinese officials’ complicity in detaining and controlling Uyghurs, operating secret camps, and collecting personal data in Xinjiang. The 2019 Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, still to be approved by the Senate, calls for the US State Department to consider human rights in policy toward China. In another move, Customs Border and Protection has restricted garment imports from one Chinese company.
Amanda Mei is a research intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 2018.