This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A top customs official said Thursday that Washington is not seeking a total ban on cotton products from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) but sounding a warning to American firms to review their supply chains amid concerns of forced labor.
On Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) to detain all cotton products and tomatoes from the XUAR at the country’s ports of entry, saying that the agency had identified indicators of forced labor including debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions.
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said that the WRO will apply to apparel, textiles, tomato seeds, canned tomatoes, and tomato sauce, as well as to products manufactured in other countries that use cotton and tomatoes from the XUAR. The U.S. imported U.S. $9 billion worth of cotton products and $10 million of tomatoes from China over the past year, according to the CBP. Most of China’s cotton is from the XUAR.
On Thursday, the CBP’s Executive Assistant Commissioner for Trade Brenda Smith told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the WRO should not be referred to as a ban, “because we are not there yet.”
“Yesterday’s withhold release order announcement is really a message to U.S. importers and to our CBP officers at U.S. ports of entry that we believe there is a high risk of the use of forced labor in producing cotton products and tomato products,” she said.
“It is not an outright ban, but is in fact a message to the trade community that we expect them to do their due diligence around shipments coming from that region and that we will detain and ask questions if a shipment that falls under those parameters arrives in the U.S.”
Smith noted that Wednesday’s WRO follows similar ones this year on three hair-product and garment producers 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.
Reports suggest that amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at 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.
Last month, a report by the Washington-based Center for Global Policy noted that the XUAR produces 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, potentially “affecting all supply chains that involve Xinjiang cotton as a raw material.” In February last year, an Australian think tank revealed a list of 82 global brands that sourced from factories in China that used workers from the region under conditions that “strongly suggest” forced labor.
“Our job is to collect evidence and to make a decision on each individual shipment that arrives in the United States, and that’s how we will be enforcing,” Smith told RFA.
“We have some very good evidence on the producers and the growers in Xinjiang, and we have been able to make connections between those growers located in China and the U.S. imports and we will continue to research those specific connections.”
Supply chain review
Smith urged U.S. importers to verify all components of their supply chains.
“Our expectation is that the U.S. importing community will do their due diligence not just in the first tier of their supply chain—the final production and shipment to the U.S.—but also down into and back all the way to where the raw material is produced,” she said.
But she acknowledged that doing so “can be really challenging because there are many large corporations that have tens of thousands of suppliers.”
Still, Smith said that the government expects importers will exercise and meet the standard of “reasonable care.”
“They will make an effort to know their supply chains, ask these hard questions and collect the documentation that will show U.S. Customs and Border Protection, when we ask questions, exactly how their goods are produced in a way that is compliant with the U.S. law, including that covering the use of forced labor,” she said.
Xinjiang watchers hailed the new WRO in interviews with RFA on Thursday.
“It’s very significant—it could really change the entire arrangement of global supply chains for cotton and apparel and also, tomato products coming from China,” said James Millward, professor of Intersocietal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a regular commentator on the situation in the region.
“It’s not the problem of the ban, it’s the problem of the Chinese Communist Party, having involved the entire economy of Xinjiang in its gulag, and its repressive regime, both through the extensive prison internment system and also through forced labor.”
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, applauded the move, saying it shows that “the international community has come to recognize that business as usual with the Chinese Communist Party is no longer possible.”
“Though, as long as the Chinese regime continues to subject hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs to forced labor and other severe human rights abuses, more steps are needed to put an end to these crimes,” he added.
Wednesday’s WRO came a day ahead of the release of an annual report by the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which called on the U.S. to take better measures to hold China accountable for rights abuses and ensure that Americans are not complicit.
“Over the last year, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (Commission) found that the Chinese government and Communist Party have taken unprecedented steps to extend their repressive policies through censorship, intimidation, and the detention of people in China for exercising their fundamental human rights,” said the report, which covered the period from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020.
“Nowhere is this more evident than in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where new evidence emerged that crimes against humanity—and possibly genocide—are occurring.”
The CECC called forced labor in the XUAR “widespread and systematic” within the region’s internment camps and elsewhere, and part of a “targeted campaign of repression against Turkic and Muslim minorities.”
“Many U.S., international, and Chinese companies are increasingly at risk of complicity in the exploitation of forced labor involving Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” the report said.
In a statement accompanying the release of the report, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon called for a roadmap to take a stand against China’s rights violations in the XUAR.
“That must include making sure that products made by forced labor from persecuted Muslim minorities aren’t sold on American shelves,” he said.
In its list of recommendations, the CECC urged the executive branch to quickly implement the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
President Donald Trump’s administration in July leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Through the act, the CECC called for a formal determination of whether atrocity crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide, are occurring in the XUAR. It also called for the continuance of sanctions against Chinese officials in the region and for the request of a United Nations special rapporteur on the XUAR to address rights abuses in the region.
The CECC urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was introduced in March last year and passed by the House of Representatives, but never brought to the floor by the Senate, and would block imports from the region unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.
Doing so would create “a ‘rebuttable presumption” requiring companies to prove that goods imported from the XUAR are not made with forced labor,” it said.
Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU), said the CECC report offered more reasons why governments should “abandon naïve hopes for Chinese reform while Xi Jinping and the CCP are in power.”
“As we continue to see that so many are choosing to support or spread propaganda narratives which whitewash the enormous crimes of the Chinese regime, we must all work harder than ever to ensure that voices such as these despicable ones do not overshadow those who are speaking the truth,” she said.
Determination on genocide
On Wednesday, members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to formally designate China’s policies in the XUAR as a genocide, according to a copy of the letter obtained by RFA.
Representatives Jim Banks of Indiana and Joe Wilson of South Carolina said that mounting evidence indicates the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) is committing genocide by forcing Uyghurs into camps and using them as slave labor.
“The CCP has engaged in a systematic and widespread campaign of violence, torture, detention, forced sterilization, and enslavement of the Uyghur Muslim people in [the XUAR],” the lawmakers wrote.
“Its actions reflect an intent to destroy, whether in whole or in part, this population.”