Senate Passes Legislation to Ban Imports from China’s Xinjiang Region

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Dec 16 2021 |
Photo by Links Unten Göttingen

The bill, already passed by the House, bans all imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they aren’t made with forced labor.

At the beginning of the year, the State Department officially declared that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang constituted a genocide. On Thursday, with just a few weeks left in 2021, Congress did something about it.

The Senate unanimously passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act. The bill bans all imports from China’s Xinjiang region, the center of the ongoing cultural genocide, unless companies seeking to import products can prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that they were not made with forced labor. The House previously passed the legislation, and the White House has said that President Biden supports the measure.

“The Administration will work closely with Congress to implement this bill to ensure global supply chains are free of forced labor, while simultaneously working to on-shore and third-shore key supply chains, including semiconductors and clean energy,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Thursday’s historic vote wasn’t the only big move policymakers took to address China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, either. The Biden administration also announced new sanctions against Chinese surveillance and biotech companies, along with government entities, for China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

All of this, of course, comes after the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympic games in Beijing in response to China’s actions against the Uyghurs. Countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have joined the U.S. in the boycott.

While the Olympics boycott is a largely symbolic gesture — although one that sends a very public message — the legislation passed by the Senate on Thursday has some real teeth. There’s ample evidence that China is utilizing forced Uyghur labor in the Xinjiang region to make products that have been connected to dozens upon dozens of Western brands, including big names like Apple and Nike. More than 85% of China’s cotton comes from Xinjiang, and forced Uyghur labor in Xinjiang also has been connected to the burgeoning solar industry.

The legislation isn’t perfect — factories could move out of the region to get around the restrictions, for example — but the bill’s passage is important because it marks the first time China’s government has faced a serious consequence over its actions in Xinjiang. There’s growing international consensus that Chinese leaders are overseeing a cultural genocide and other human rights violations.

More than 1 million people, most of them Uyghurs or members of other ethnic minority groups, have been detained in reeducation camps in Xinjiang. China’s government also stands accused of using “forced sterilization, sexual violence, enslavement, torture, and forcible transfer” against the Uyghurs. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Uyghurs have been forced to work in factories making products or feeding the supply chain for some of the world’s best known brands.

The passage of the legislation also sends a strong message to companies who have been connected to forced labor in Xinjiang.

Indeed, rather than clean up their own labor practices and supply chains, companies like Nike, Apple, and Coca-Cola lobbied against the legislation last year. And Nike and Apple have gone out of their way to confirm on their commitment to China.

In many ways, 2021 was a turning point for U.S.-China relations. As China marked its 20th anniversary in the World Trade Organization, the conventional wisdom among policymakers and think tank types truly shifted. China’s authoritarian government is now rightly viewed as a strategic competitor, and one that is undertaking a cultural genocide in order to strengthen control over its own people.

Policymakers are right to take action. The United States should not allow anything made from forced labor practices to reach its shores. U.S. officials also should implement an industrial policy to strengthen our own production capabilities and ensure we are less reliant on China, which is especially vital for things like solar panels and other clean energy technology.

But at the same time, companies also need to clean up their act, too. There’s absolutely no excuse for Nike, Apple, and others to be depending on forced labor and subsidizing a genocide to make their products.