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US blocks imports from China’s Uyghur region over suspected forced labor

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo (U.S. State Department photo by Freddie Everett)
September 15, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. administration has issued orders to block the import of cotton, apparel, computer parts, and hair products made by “forced labor” in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, a move Beijing called an attempt to sabotage global supply chains.

The so-called “withhold release orders,” which stop short of a wider regional ban, give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the authority to seize products from five entities in China, preventing the goods from being imported into the United States, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on September 14.

The action, which is likely to stoke already heightened tensions between the United States and China, is aimed specifically at the “egregious human rights abuses” that Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang are facing.

Such abuses “include subjecting individuals to forced labor and stripping them of their freedom and agency to choose how and where they work,” Pompeo said, adding that the orders send a clear message to China that it is time to “end its practice of state-sponsored forced labor and to respect the human rights of all people.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said on September 15 that the U.S. import bans were aimed at sabotaging global supply chains.

The five entities targeted by the new orders include the Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center in Xinjiang, where the CBP says it has information that “reasonably indicates” the use of prison labor to make hair products.

“This is not a vocational center, it is a concentration camp, a place where religious and ethnic minorities are subject to abuse and forced to work in heinous conditions with no recourse and no freedom,” Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told reporters. “This is modern-day slavery.”

Washington has recently ratcheted up pressure on China over its treatment of Uyghurs.

Pompeo has said that American companies are “becoming aware” of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but the CBP did not identify any U.S. companies that do business with the named entities.

In the past year, the U.S. government has issued eight “withhold release orders” to block goods from China tainted by forced labor and is considering further steps, including a ban on cotton and tomatoes from the entire Xinjiang region.

China has faced condemnation for placing more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups in Xinjiang in concentration camps since 2017.

Beijing says the camps are reeducation and training centers needed to combat separatist terrorism and extremism.

Uyghurs are the largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang, followed by Kazakhs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.