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Possible Xinjiang Cotton Ban Looms, Fueling US-China Tensions

U.S. Customs and Border Protection could hand down a mandate this week that would bar imports of cotton and textiles from China’s embattled Xinjiang region.

The mandate, known as a Withhold Release Order (WRO), would require the imports under the WRO to be re-exported or destroyed if linked to forced labor, which the Chinese government is said use as a means of “assimilating” Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who are compelled to toil in cotton fields and textile factories. The latest action also would escalate long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and China.

On July 31, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against “one Chinese government entity and two current or former government officials in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”  The sanctions followed a July 1 Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory jointly issued by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Treasury.

The Xianjiang region produces more than 7 percent of the world’s cotton supply, some of which ends up in American apparel products such as T-shirts and denim jeans. With sanctions slated to take place later this month, fashion firms have been working around the clock since last month to trace their cotton supply chains and identify how much comes from Xianjiang in case government sanctions interrupt sourcing.

One in five cotton garments sold globally contains fiber or yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region, making the entire apparel industry complicit in human-right abuses against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims, according to the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition. And investigations and studies over the past two years indicate that many well-known brands—such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Fast Retailing, Gap, Nike, Skechers and Inditex, to name a few—have connections to companies that have operations in the region. The U.S., under U.S. Code Title 19, Section 1307, also makes it illegal to allow goods produced or manufactured, even in part, in any foreign country by convict, forced or indentured labor.

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Last month, a group of human-rights, labor and investor organizations filed a formal petition with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol urging it to issue a regional WRO on all cotton-made goods connected to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China.

Britain’s Global Legal Action Network, together with the World Uyghur Congress, was planning to file its own companion petition with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol based on a similar complaint filed with U.K. authorities earlier this year alleging widespread labor abuses. As in the United States, U.K. law prohibits the import of products made with prison labor.

Two years ago, a WRO was issued on cotton and cotton-made goods originating from Turkmenistan, due to the country’s state-sponsored program of forced labor.

The scope of a WRO, if one is to be issued, remains unclear, The New York Times reported Monday. About 85 percent of China’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang, The South China Morning Post reported, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data.