WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law legislation that bans imports from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns about forced labour, the White House said, provoking an angry Chinese condemnation.
The Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act is part of the US pushback against Beijing’s treatment of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, which Washington has labelled genocide. The bill passed Congress this month after lawmakers reached a compromise between House and Senate versions.
Key to the legislation is a “rebuttable presumption” that assumes all goods from Xinjiang, where Beijing has established detention camps for Uighurs and other Muslim groups, are made with forced labour. It bars imports unless it can be proven otherwise.
Some goods — such as cotton, tomatoes, and polysilicon used in solar-panel manufacturing — are designated “high priority” for enforcement action.
China denies abuses in Xinjiang, a major cotton producer that also supplies much of the world’s materials for solar panels.
Its Washington embassy said the act “ignores the truth and maliciously slanders the human rights situation in Xinjiang”.
“This is a severe violation of international law and norms of international relations, and a gross interference in China’s internal affairs. China strongly condemns and firmly rejects it,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said in an emailed statement.
He said China “would respond further in light of the development of the situation”, but did not elaborate.
Nury Turkel, Uighur-American vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Reuters this month the bill’s effectiveness would depend on the willingness of Biden’s administration to ensure it is effective, especially when companies seek waivers.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden’s approval of the law underscored the “United States’ commitment to combatting forced labour, including in the context of the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang.”
US pushback against Beijing’s treatment of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, which Washington has labelled genocide. Detention camps are made with forced labour in Xinjiang for Uighurs and other Muslim groups
“The State Department is committed to working with Congress and our interagency partners to continue addressing forced labour in Xinjiang and to strengthen international action against this egregious violation of human rights,” he said in a statement.
One of the bill’s co-authors, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, said it was necessary to “send a resounding and unequivocal message against genocide and slave labour.”
“Now … we can finally ensure that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China’s horrific human rights abuses,” he said in a statement.
In its final days in January, the Trump administration announced a ban on all Xinjiang cotton and tomato products.
The US Customs and Border Protection agency estimated then that about $9 billion of cotton products and $10 million of tomato products were imported from China in the past year.
Bill passed at House of Representatives
The US House of Representatives on Wednesday (9th December) passed legislation restricting imports from China’s Xinjiang region over its treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority, as tensions continue to escalate between Washington and Beijing.
Members of the House voted 428-1 to pass the “Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act”, which requires corporations to prove “with clear and convincing evidence” that any goods imported from the region were not made using forced labour.
“Right now, Beijing is orchestrating a brutal and accelerating campaign of repression against the Uighur people and other Muslim minorities,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers ahead of the vote.
“In Xinjiang, across China, millions are enduring outrageous human rights abuses: from mass surveillance and disciplinary policing; to mass torture including solitary confinement and forced sterilisations; intimidation of journalists and activists who have dared to expose the truth.”
She added: “And, the government of China’s exploitation of forced labour reaches across the oceans to our shores and across the world.”
The US Senate has previously approved a similar measure and the two will now need reconciling.
The bill will then need to be signed into law by President Joe Biden and it was unclear whether it had White House support.
The vote comes shortly after the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics over what it termed China’s “genocide” of the Uighur minority and other human rights abuses, a move that drew a harsh rebuke from Beijing.
Earlier this summer, the US government imposed similar restrictions on some Chinese imports, including solar panel materials, over Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs.
China called those restrictions “bandit-like”. In a separate 428-0 vote, the House also passed a resolution stating that the International Olympic Committee “failed to adhere to its own human rights commitments” amid doubts about the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who has accused a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
Campaigners say that at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Human rights groups and foreign governments have found evidence of what they say is mass detentions, forced labour, political indoctrination, torture and forced sterilisation. Washington has described it as genocide.
China defends itself
After initially denying the existence of the Xinjiang camps, China later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamist extremism.
In a new report published on Wednesday, the Uighur Human Rights Project — a US-based advocacy group — said it had identified more than 300 Uighur and other Muslim intellectuals believed to be detained in Xinjiang since 2017.
China has denied the accusations concerning its treatment of the Uighurs and there was no immediate comment on the House vote from Beijing.