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US to detain cotton imports produced by Xinjiang group over forced labor concerns

Baumwollkapsel, cotton boll, Guangxi, China (Azzurro/WikiCommons)
December 03, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. announced Wednesday that it will detain all shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)—a key paramilitary group in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)—citing forced labor abuses.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Trade issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) directing personnel at all U.S. ports of entry to block the products “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including convict labor.”

The order applies to all cotton goods produced by the XPCC, also known as the “Bingtuan,” and its subordinate and affiliated entities, as well as any products that are made in whole or in part with or derived from that cotton, such as apparel, garments, and textiles, the statement said.

Rights groups estimate that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the XUAR and a July report by the End Uyghur Forced Labor campaign found that “It is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labor.”

Federal law prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, manufactured, or produced, wholly or in part, by forced labor, including convict labor, forced child labor, and indentured labor. Importers of detained shipments will be given the opportunity to export their shipments or demonstrate that the merchandise was not produced with forced labor.

Wednesday’s WRO marks the sixth action the CBP has announced in the past three months against goods it says are made by forced labor in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.

Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at nearby factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.

In July 2020, the U.S. government issued an advisory to companies warning of the risks of forced labor in the region, where the Chinese government also restricts religious and cultural practices, and employs a sophisticated high-tech surveillance grid that keeps those outside of the camps in what amounts to a virtual prison.

“The human rights abuses taking place at the hands of the Chinese Communist government will not be tolerated by President Trump and the American people,” said DHS acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli.

“DHS is taking the lead to enforce our laws to make sure human rights abusers, including U.S. businesses, are not allowed to manipulate our system in order to profit from slave labor. ‘Made in China’ is not just a country of origin it is a warning label.”

“China’s systemic abuse of forced labor in the Xinjiang Region should disturb every American business and consumer,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan.

“Forced labor is a human rights violation that hurts vulnerable workers and introduces unfair competition into global supply chains. CBP will continue taking decisive action to prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the United States.”

‘A force for repression’

Uyghur rights groups also welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, with Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), calling it a “timely action.”

He labeled the XPCC a “colonial force used by China to crush the legitimate demands of the Uyghur people” that he said had stolen their land and resources over the past 65 years, all while exploiting members of the ethnic group as forced labor “for decades.”

Isa urged member nations of the European Union to follow the U.S. lead and undertake similar actions to hold the XPCC accountable, while calling on the international community to boycott products made in China during the holidays in support of the Uyghur people.

Henryk Szadziewski, director of research at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), also applauded Washington’s decision to ban cotton imports produced by the XPCC.

“For many years [we] documented the role of the Bingtuan … as a force for repression, particularly targeting Uyghurs, and we know that the Bingtuan has been directly controlled from Beijing and has appropriated plenty of lands, water, resources from Uyghurs,” he said.

“It should send a sign to China that its repression of Uyghurs won’t be tolerated. And I think that the other piece of this is that we need other countries now, particularly those in Europe whose own supply chains are tainted by Uyghur forced labor, to make such kinds of actions—preventing the import of these products.”

UHRP executive director Omer Kanat said in a statement following the announcement that sanctions on the XPCC “should be global.”

“International companies are now on notice: if you import any goods produced by the XPCC, you are complicit in human rights crimes,” he said.

“The United States will now hold companies to account if they try to import goods connected with the XPCC.”

The latest action by Washington to crack down on goods produced with forced labor comes just two months after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act, which the requires U.S. publicly listed companies to audit supply chains for forced labor. It also directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose imports of manufactured goods and materials derived from forced labor in the XUAR.

That legislation followed the Sept. 22 passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which requires the Secretary of State to determine if imposing forced labor on Uyghurs and other Muslim Turkic groups constitutes crimes against humanity or genocide under U.S. law.