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Police officers stand guard in the old city in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, China in May. Photo: Reuters

Xinjiang forced labour bill moves ahead as it clears key US Senate committee

  • The legislation is a sign of the growing willingness in both political parties to challenge American businesses over their ties to the region
  • ‘If you want to import something from this region, you have to prove that those goods were not made with forced labour. Otherwise it is presumed that it was’
The Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act found new life on Thursday after it cleared a key US Senate foreign policy committee without objection, less than a year after lawmakers failed to pass bipartisan legislation seeking to block all imports from China’s Xinjiang region.
The bill effectively amounts to a ban on all goods coming into the US from Xinjiang, unless businesses can prove that they were not made using forced labour.
It is the latest sign from Washington of the widespread anger towards Beijing over its policies in the region. But it also signals another emerging shift in the US capital: a growing willingness in both parties to challenge American businesses over their ties to Xinjiang.

“American companies argue that their supply chains are clean,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican sponsor of the bill. “And what this bill says is: prove it.”


Canada leads call by more than 40 countries for China to give UN access to Xinjiang

Canada leads call by more than 40 countries for China to give UN access to Xinjiang

“If you want to import something to the United States from this region, you have to prove that those goods were not made with forced labour. Otherwise it is presumed that it was,” Rubio said.

Eventually, the full Senate and House of Representatives will have to approve the legislation before it goes to President Joe Biden to sign into law. The timing for the bill’s next steps have not yet been determined, Rubio’s office said.
Its approval on Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee comes amid growing alarm from rights groups, industry organisations, multiple governments and the United Nations over Beijing’s suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including mass detentions of the region’s Uygur population and forced labour.

On Monday, the UN’s top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, said she hoped to visit Xinjiang by the end of this year. The Chinese government says it is not committing human rights abuses in the region.

UN human rights chief Bachelet seeks Xinjiang visit this year

Experts have said the bill’s requirement for businesses to prove that their imports did not use forced labour in Xinjiang would be a nearly impossible task. Independent observers are rarely allowed to enter the opaque northwest region, and Uygur workers there are reported to be under constant government surveillance.

“The scope and scale of forced labour in Xinjiang demands bold action,” said Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the Democratic sponsor of the bill.

“If American companies and consumers are buying products from that region, it makes us complicit in this horrific abuse of human rights, and thus this bill is absolutely necessary to sustain our values,” he said.

Police officers patrol in the old city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region last month. Photo: Reuters
When the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act was first introduced in the last session of Congress, it faced an onslaught of lobbying from some of the biggest US corporations, including Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola.

It still managed to pass the House of Representatives last year by an overwhelming 406-3 margin, only to stall in the Senate.

The House’s version of the forced labour bill was inserted into a much larger piece of legislation targeting China, called the Eagle Act, that will soon be taken up by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Recent months have seen forced labour suspicions, once largely limited to agricultural industries like cotton and tomatoes, expand to other sectors, including renewable energy technology.

US bans imports from Chinese solar panel firm over Xinjiang forced labour claims

Those new concerns, amplified by US lawmakers, came following media reports and expert analysis that the production of polysilicon – a key component in the manufacture of solar panels – in Xinjiang was tied to labour transfer programmes that are considered red flags for the existence of forced labour.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that it would block imports of polysilicon from a Xinjiang solar company called Hoshine Silicon Industry Co Ltd.

The US Department of Labour has also added Chinese polysilicon to a public list of goods that it warns are “produced by child labour or forced labour”.


What happened to our parents? Uygur sisters seek answers

What happened to our parents? Uygur sisters seek answers

In addition, the US Commerce Department added Hoshine Silicon Industry Co and four other Xinjiang entities – including three others that reportedly make polysilicon, and the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which dominates much of Xinjiang’s economy – to its Entity List, which effectively blocks Americans firms from selling equipment to those companies. The XPCC is already subject to human rights sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The US Department of Homeland Security “is deeply concerned by credible and growing reports of China‘s state-sponsored use of forced labour and other human rights violations in Xinjiang”, agency chief Alejandro Mayorkas said, adding that US customs and border officials have “developed a civil investigative programme for forced labour that is world class”.

The US “will continue to aggressively investigate the use of forced labour in silica supply chains and in a broad range of other industries”, Mayorkas said.

“Producers and US importers alike should understand that there will be consequences for entities that attempt to exploit forced labour to sell goods in the United States.”

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill and Robert Delaney