Australia could be next to clamp down on imports from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region despite threats by Beijing that it would respond “in kind” if Canberra followed the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union in imposing sanctions over concerns about Turkic Muslim human-rights abuses.
Officials noted at a Senate hearing Tuesday that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government was in regular talks with “all China-facing businesses” and that despite the lack of legal advisories, it has made clear its “concerns about human-rights and supply-chain integrity.”
The Senate’s defense and trade legislation committee is considering tightening anti-slavery laws, as well as deliberating over a bill tabled by independent senator Rex Patrick that would bar goods from Xinjiang, “as well as goods from other parts of China that are produced, in whole or in part, by using forced labor,” from entering Australia.
“The government will continue to monitor reports of forced labor globally, including in Xinjiang, and assess Australia’s policy settings and engage with stakeholders and partners with a view to supporting international efforts to reduce the risk of modern slavery, including forced labor, in Australia’s supply chains,” said Vanessa Holben, first assistant secretary at the Australian Department of Home Affairs, adding that the government wants to ensure it is “delivering a targeted, effective response.”
Critics of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions, say that the legislation could leave the door “wide open” for the import of Chinese forced-labor goods because it only requires companies with revenues of more than $100 million to submit annual statements on the steps they are taking to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains.
Without fines, there is “no incentive for companies to report what they have done to deal with slavery in their supply chains,” union secretary Sally McManus told Guardian Australia in January. “Australia’s Modern Slavery Act does not go far enough, leaving the door wide open for products made with Chinese forced labor to slip through the cracks in our system.”
Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, told lawmakers that Canberra has been glacial in its response to the reports of forced labor and that it needs to act sooner rather than later.
“Whether in Australia or internationally, legislation prohibiting and penalizing the use of slave labor must be implemented and done so urgently,” she said. “I implore the committee to strengthen the legislative bill to hold companies, industries and their supply chains to account that rely in whole or in part on products made by Uyghur forced labor,” she said.
Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, warned at a media event earlier this month, however, that already tense relations between the countries could deteriorate further if Morrison followed other Western nations in their “flagrant violation” of international norms “based on disinformation or misinformation.”
“We will not provoke, but if we are provoked we will respond in kind,” Cheng said.
Governments worldwide are facing increased pressure to condemn Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, where millions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslims are being held in detention camps or forced to work in fields and factories as part of a broader campaign of repression and cultural erasure designed to mold them into model Chinese citizens.
Last week, a spokesperson for Xinjiang called accusations of genocide “counter to the facts” after Britain’s House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution condemning “mass human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity” in the northwestern region.
“The motion adopted by the British side was totally groundless,” Xu Guixiang, the deputy director-general of the ruling Communist Party’s publicity department in Xinjiang, said Friday. “The decision was made on the basis of remarks by some politicians, some so-called academic institutes, some so-called experts and scholars and some so-called witnesses.”
While Britain was part of an allied bloc that imposed joint sanctions on Chinese officials over the reported atrocities last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has balked at labeling what it has called “industrial-scale” human-rights abuses as genocide, insisting that it is up to “competent” courts to determine.
Olympic tug of war
The issue may further come to a head in the lead up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which is facing widespread calls for an international boycott.
“It’s disgusting that the [International Olympic Committee] has provided Beijing a platform to host the world, and to have a nation which is committing genocide against a people is at the same time hosting an Olympic Games is jarring and outrageous,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said at a committee hearing last week.
Romney and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) are proposing a “diplomatic boycott” that would allow U.S. athletes to attend the Olympics but withhold funding to send an official American delegation to the Games. This strategy would allow the United States to make a statement about China’s human-rights record without punishing American athletes who have “trained their entire lives to be ready for this moment,” Romney said.
Axios reported Tuesday that “Nike of China” Anta Sports, the official Olympics uniform supplier for the Beijing Games, has refused to say if it will be using Xinjiang cotton, despite making clear its support for domestically grown cotton in the past. Anta has also said it will be quitting the Better Cotton Initiative after the sourcing network suspended all field-level activities in the Uyghur region following mounting concerns over forced labor.
“We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so,” Anta said in late March.
Anta has supplied uniforms for IOC members and IOC staff since the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the Olympics organizer said. The upcoming uniforms for the Tokyo Games use no cotton, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal, and the IOC has been “working closely” with Anta to monitor the conditions in the factory producing the goods.
“The approach of the IOC is to always take a partnership and engagement approach with its suppliers to value and support their steps for a respecting and sustainable production, whilst being clear on our human-rights requirements,” the spokesperson said. “Those are reflected in our contract with Anta and materialized through the ongoing dialogue we are having with Anta on those matters.”
Anta, whose executive director and president serves as co-chair of the board of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry, did not respond to a request for comment.
One thing that is clear is that the United States’ Xinjiang cotton ban appears to be working. A recent South China Morning Post story noted that while Xinjiang exports to the United States doubled in the first quarter of the year, according to Chinese trade data, cotton and cotton products from the region have effectively been locked out.
“Exports of chemical products have gone up but from a small base, and many of these products have not been subject to sanctions as is the case with cotton,” Keith Rockwell, a spokesman for the World Trade Organization, told Sourcing Journal.
Xinjiang cotton’s crumbling reputation has had repercussions worldwide, said Dr. Sheng Lu, associate professor at the department of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. While apparel products that touted Xinjiang cotton were still common in the international marketplace from January of 2019 to June last year, Lu said, China is now the only leading consumer market where such items can be found, and almost entirely from domestic brands.
“The result is highly consistent with what I see from the trade data and reminds us not to underestimate the significant impact of forced labor concerns on fashion brands and retailers’ sourcing decisions,” he said.