United Nations Says It is “Reasonable to Conclude” Forced Labor is Happening in Xinjiang

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Aug 18 2022 |
Reports indicate that cotton from the Xinjiang region in China is picked by the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups who are victims of forced labor.
A cotton field in Turpan, Xinjiang in China. One report found that up to half a million people from ethnic minority groups in China have been forced to pick cotton. Getty Images

The U.N. report underscores just how important it is to enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and undertake other key policy efforts.

On the final day of the Trump presidency, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement declaring that he had determined that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was undertaking a genocide against the Uyghurs and other minority groups in China’s Xinjiang region.

Pompeo’s statement was damning, accusing China of a host of human rights violations, including the internment of at least 1 million people, the removal of children from their families, forced sterilization, and even torture. Pompeo also said China had forced Uyghurs and other victims into forced labor.

China’s government quickly issued a rebuff of Pompeo’s claim, and some expected that the incoming Biden administration might not make the same determination. But lo and behold, Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to the same conclusion just a few weeks later, and has been outspoken in his criticism of the CCP’s practices in Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, countries like the United Kingdom and Canada have reached similar conclusions, while organizations like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have outlined how forced labor in Xinjiang is used in the manufacture of products for Western brands.

All the while, the CCP has denied the claims, calling them “vicious lies concocted by anti-China forces,” mainly being the “US side.” But that is becoming harder for China’s government to do, because it is no longer just the United States and its closest allies making these determinations.

The United Nations (U.N.) issued a report this week finding that “it as reasonable to conclude that forced labour among Uighur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.”

The report is written by Tomoya Obokata, U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. It is a grim read, as it outlines the “[c]ontemporary forms of slavery affecting persons belonging to ethnic, religious and linguistic minority communities” throughout the world.

Here’s what the report says about what’s happening in Xinjiang:

“Two distinct State mandated systems exist: (a) the vocational skills education and training centre system, under which minorities are detained and subjected to work placements; and (b) the poverty alleviation through labour transfer system, where surplus rural labourers are transferred into secondary or tertiary sector work. Similar arrangements have also been identified in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where an extensive labour transfer programme has shifted mainly farmers, herders and other rural workers into low-skilled and low-paid employment.”

Obokata’s report also counters China’s ongoing narrative that these programs are merely providing opportunity for these minority groups, noting that this work is involuntary and:

“…given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labour, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis.”

Let that sink in. The United Nations now has said on record that what is happening in Xinjiang may very well be a crime against humanity.

China’s government — no surprise here! — says the report is “lies and disinformation about Xinjiang spread by the U.S. and some other Western countries and anti-China forces.” The statement is just further evidence that pressure from the international community isn’t going to stop the CCP from undertaking its genocide of the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Sadly, there’s not a whole lot the U.S. and its allies can directly do to stop the genocide in Xinjiang. But that doesn’t mean we have to be complicit in it, either.

In 2021, Congress nearly unanimously passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans all products from Xinjiang from being imported into the United States unless importers can prove they were not made with forced labor.

The new law is now in effect, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have begun to enforce it. Perhaps not surprisingly, we’re already starting to see pushback from some importers.

Solar importers, for example, are complaining about the implementation, with one lawyer telling the Wall Street Journal that there “are a number of Chinese solar manufacturers that are scrambling right now.”

Given that multiple studies have found forced labor is rampant from the top to bottom of China’s solar supply chain, the United States should not be worried about Chinese solar manufacturers scrambling. Instead, U.S. Customs officials must fully enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Nothing made with forced labor in Xinjiang should make it to American consumers. Period.

And look, this isn’t a knock on solar panels. Instead of continuing to buy into the false narrative that imports are the only way for the U.S. to ramp up solar installation, the United States instead must focus on boosting our own production capabilities and growing our own solar supply chain. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is a good start, and expanding Buy America for government purchases of solar power is another way to boost demand for domestic production.

It’s not just solar panels, though — remember everything from clothing to vinyl flooring has been linked to forced labor in Xinjiang. That’s why Congress issued such a broad ban in the first place, and why it’s so important that ban is fully enforced.

Congress has more work to do as well, starting by closing the “de minimis” loophole that allows imports valued under $800 to enter the United States duty-free. Although originally intended to make it easier for people like tourists trying to bring souvenirs back into the United States, the de minimis loophole has been exploited by companies like SHEIN and Amazon, who mail products directly to consumers from China.

Given the prevalence of forced labor in the cotton and clothing industries in China, it’s likely these products are tied to forced labor, either via their direct assembly or the supply chain. But these products are likely to make it past customs officials who are enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, as they enter the country via that direct-to-consumer model. The only way to tackle these imports is by fixing the de minimis loophole.

Look, it’s easy for us to argue against imports. I mean, we’re the Alliance for American Manufacturing, after all. Our whole mission is to increase domestic manufacturing so the U.S. isn’t reliant on imports for the things we need, and trade enforcement is part of the way we do that.

But as the U.N. report this week shows, what’s happening in Xinjiang isn’t a typical trade dispute. It very may well be a crime against humanity. Banning goods from Xinjiang was the right thing to do, and bravo to Congress and the Biden administration for having the will to do it.

Now the United States needs to see it through. Our country must not be complicit in what is happening to the Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang.

You can help: Tell U.S. Customs and Border Protection to fully enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act!