The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed on Wednesday legislation that would outlaw most imports from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China over concerns that they were produced using the forced labor of persecuted ethnic groups.
The 428-to-1 vote on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which comes just as the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, is indicative of widespread, bipartisan indignation in Congress over China’s reported human-rights abuses, including the extrajudicial detention of more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities as part of a sweeping campaign of repression and assimilation that many have dubbed genocide.
“The People’s Republic of China is waging a brutal campaign of repression against the Uyghur people and other minorities with mass incarceration, torture and forced labor,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters before the vote. “With these bills, the House is combating this horrific situation and shining a light on Beijing’s abuse.”
The sole dissenting vote was from Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie, who has said in the past that he does not want the U.S. government to “meddle” in the domestic affairs of other nations.
“This is a strong, bipartisan bill with a simple purpose: to stop the government of China from exploiting the Uyghur people,” Representative James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and author of H.R. 1155, said in a statement. “We must take a clear moral position to stand with those who are suffering because of forced labor. No more business as usual. I urge the United States Senate to quickly pass this bill and get it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently has Withhold Release Orders on cotton and cotton-containing products, along with tomatoes and some polysilicon materials, from Xinjiang, barring them from entry only if forced labor is suspected in their production.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, on the other hand, “puts the requirement on companies to take action to ensure they have no Uyghur forced labor in their supply chains,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, told Sourcing Journal. “This is especially important given that many finished goods containing cotton and textile inputs from the Uyghur Region are actually produced in third countries, which creates challenges for enforcement. The [bill] shifts the burden to companies to take preventative action, in line with human-rights due-diligence standards.”
The Senate passed a version of the bill, S.65, in July by a unanimous vote. While both measures would create a “rebuttable presumption” that all products from Xinjiang are made with forced labor, H.R. 1155 requires companies to further disclose the extent of a wide range of business dealings in the region. Other discrepancies involve timing: The House’s version, for instance, requires the law to take effect 120 days after enactment, while the Senate’s allows 300 days. Both versions of the bill must be reconciled before President Biden can sign it into law.
“The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is a vital step in ensuring that companies operating in the United States do not use or profit from Uyghur forced labor and that goods made by Uyghur forced labor aren’t sold to U.S. consumers,” Gill said. “There are no credible means for companies to verify that any workplace in the Uyghur region is free from forced labor or to prevent or remediate forced labor in line with human-rights due-diligence requirements. Therefore companies must redirect their sourcing and cut ties with suppliers operating in the Uyghur region or that use Uyghur forced labor.”
Jewher Ilham, forced labor project coordinator at the Worker Rights Consortium, applauded the vote but said it was only the “first step.”
“What’s critical now is the reconciliation process and seeing it officially signed into law by the President and actively enforced in the United States,” she told Sourcing Journal. “It is high time that companies selling on the U.S. market recognize that they can no longer profit off of the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples.”
The American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group, said that the existence of forced labor in Xinjiang and the trafficking of Uyghurs to other regions has made the situation a “top operational and public policy priority” for it and its members, which include Adidas, Gap and Levi Strauss.
“The global apparel and footwear brands we represent are persistent and unyielding in their efforts to identify, root out and eliminate traces of forced labor in their supply chains,” it said in a statement Wednesday. “Our advocacy before Congress reflects the same principles, which is absolutely critical to be most effective in stopping products made with forced labor from entering the United States. The Senate-passed legislation incorporates many of these concepts as part of our shared goal of pursuing and preventing products made with forced labor from entering the United States. We look forward to working with policymakers to reconcile the different versions between the House-passed legislation and S.65 which the Senate unanimously passed…so that President Biden has a smart, comprehensive, effective and enforceable bill to sign.”
Julia K. Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association, another trade group, shared the sentiment. “In these days when the partisan divide in Washington seems insurmountable, the House passage of the Uyghur bill highlights the shared commitment by the U.S. business community and members of Congress to end forced labor,” Hughes told Sourcing Journal. “We look forward to sharing our perspective with policymakers in Congress and the [Biden] administration as they work to finalize this legislation.
Speaking Thursday at a press conference in Beijing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the accusation of forced labor in Xinjiang “nothing but a defamation” and urged Congress to “immediately stop pushing the relevant bill” or face potential consequences.
“China has elaborated its position on Xinjiang-related issues on many occasions,” Wang said. “The U.S. repeatedly spreads rumors and makes trouble on Xinjiang-related issues. This is in essence political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of human rights. The U.S. intention is to undermine Xinjiang’s prosperity, stability and ethnic solidarity, and contain China’s development.”
The House also approved on Wednesday legislation condemning the ruling Communist Party for the “forced labor, crimes against humanity and genocide inflicted on the Uyghur people and other ethnic and religious minority groups.” A third measure admonished the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for failing to “adhere to its own human-rights commitments” regarding Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who disappeared shortly after accusing a former high-level government official of sexual assault, fueling allegations of a cover-up. The IOC previously said that it cannot “give assurances” about Peng’s wellbeing.
“The three bills passed today in the House of Representatives make clear that the United States will not stand idly by in the face of horrific human rights abuses committed by the People’s Republic of China,” New York Democrat Gregory W. Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “It is incumbent on all nations to speak out against these atrocities, and for all companies to ensure their supply chains are not linked to forced labor practices, no matter how powerful the perpetrator of these human-rights abuses.”
Over in the United Kingdom, which confirmed Wednesday that it will not be sending any ministers or officials to the Beijing Games, an independent tribunal ruled that China has committed genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang and that the Communist Party’s senior leadership, including President Xi Jinping, should take “primary responsibility” for the acts.
“The tribunal is satisfied that the [People’s Republic of China] has affected a deliberate, systematic and concerted policy with the object of so-called ‘optimizing’ the population in Xinjiang by the means of a long-term reduction of Uyghur and other ethnic minority populations to be achieved through limiting and reducing Uyghur births,” Geoffrey Nice, a human-rights lawyer and chairman of the tribunal, said Thursday as he delivered the verdict. The body is an unofficial one and has no powers of sanction or enforcement.
Though the “perpetration of individual criminal acts that may have occurred, rape or torture may not have been carried out with the detailed knowledge of the President and others, but the tribunal is satisfied that they have occurred as a direct result of politics, language and speeches promoted by President Xi and others and furthermore these policies could not have happened in a country with such rigid hierarchies as the PRC without implicit and explicit authority from the very top,” he added.