New Ban on Imports from Xinjiang; U.S. Reaffirms their Stance on Uyghur Forced Labor

In recent years, many reports have emerged that accuse China of repressing Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. Earlier in 2021, the U.S. State Department estimated that possibly up to 2 million Uyghurs were being held in detainment centers in the country’s western region of Xinjiang. Former detainees have reported that while in the camps, they were “subjected to intense political indoctrination, forced labor, torture, and even sexual abuse.” Subsequently, in March of 2021, the U.S. put pressure on China through sanctions on various officials over human rights violations, a move that was followed by the European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Now, almost a year later, U.S. legislation has been passed that will, effective immediately, ban imports from the Xinjiang region, citing the many previously mentioned human rights abuses. 

The Act serves four main functions:

  • An enforcement strategy that will generate lists of products and materials from Xinjiang for U.S. companies to keep out of their supply chains
  • A presumption that any product produced in Xinjiang or passing through Xinjiang at some point in the supply chain is barred from import, unless it can be proven that such a product was not produced via forced labor
  • A diplomatic strategy that will generate a list of entities in China or affiliates that have benefitted from forced labor or acted as agents in importing these goods to the U.S.
  • Sanctions that the president may place on any foreign individual identified to have been involved in forced labor in Xinjiang. 

It has been said that the Act will impact the supply chains of “many multinational employers… because raw materials from this region… have found their way into many global supply chains.” As such, this move does not only affect the U.S., but also the many intermediaries that operate throughout this exchange process such as Vietnam, a country that manufactures U.S.-bound textiles using cotton imported from Xinjiang. 

In response to the legislation, China’s government denounced it as a “violation of international law.” According to foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, the act “maliciously denigrates the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang in disregard of facts and truth.” Zhao further announced, “China deplores and firmly rejects this.” This response is in line with past rebuttals to accusations about these human rights violations. Many countries, including the U.S., have gone further by stating that China has been committing genocide in their Xinjiang detainment camps. According to the U.N.’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the term refers to “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” The fact that such atrocities may still be in effect and the perpetrators are yet to be held accountable is a situation of major concern not just for international buyers but also for humanitarian organizations worldwide. 

Equally problematic is the threat posed to those who speak out against repressive activities in Xinjiang. Back in March of 2021, BBC reporters conversed with 22 people who had fled the region, all of whom described “a pattern of threats, harassment, and public character attacks they said were designed to deter them from speaking out about alleged human rights abuses back home.” Between this and the tightly secured surveillance state within China and within Xinjiang especially, it has been a challenge for foreign powers and human rights organizations to appropriately investigate the situation. Moving forward, it is possible that this Act will be emulated by other countries wishing to crack down on forced labor. Canada, for example, has recently started to seize goods, from Chinese importers, that were found to have been produced via forced labor. Currently, there has been debate about whether or not the U.S. approach, in which sellers must present proof that their supply chain was in no way connected to Xinjiang, is worth following. The U.K. is seeking to make changes to their international accountability standards as well. They have stated that they are seeking to amend their Modern Slavery Act 2015. With these actions, it is hoped that an economic strain on Xinjiang’s international network strong enough to alleviate these human rights violations may arise. Until such a goal is achieved, however, the U.S. and other foreign powers are expected to continue their pressure on China through such transnational economic means.

Jacob Margolis is from Towson, Maryland and is studying Political Science and History.