U.S. poised to ban all Xinjiang products unless proven to not be made with Uyghur forced labor

Foreign Affairs

After over a year of deliberations, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has passed both the House and Senate in the U.S. Congress. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law soon. Here’s what it would do.

xinjiang cotton
A worker in a textile factory production line in Jinghe county, Xinjiang, on March 17, 2020. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

The U.S. Senate today unanimously passed a major bill aimed at punishing China for the use of forced labor in Xinjiang, the region where Beijing directed the extralegal detention of vast numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities starting in 2017. China’s policies have seen a “shift from mass internment to coerced labor and mass imprisonment” in the years since the Xinjiang crackdown began, the scholar Darren Byler told SupChina today.

Named the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the bill (full text here) has been welcomed by President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law soon. The measure earlier passed the other chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, after a week of last-minute negotiation.

The legislation aims to “prohibit the import of all goods, wares, articles, or merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured, wholly or in part, by forced labor from the People’s Republic of China and particularly any such goods, wares, articles, or merchandise produced in [Xinjiang].”

  • Starting 120 days after becoming law, the Act would require any U.S. company to apply for permission to import any product traceable to Xinjiang, and provide “clear and convincing evidence, that any specific goods, wares, articles, or merchandise…were not produced wholly or in part by convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor under penal sanctions.”

A shock to supply chains and U.S.-China relations

The bill has been debated in the U.S. Congress for over a year, along the way facing significant obstacles on its way to becoming law. Lobbyists for companies including Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola argued that “the act’s ambitious requirements could wreak havoc on supply chains that are deeply embedded in China,” the New York Times reported last year.

It certainly won’t be easy, in many cases, to sort out exactly which products have inputs in Xinjiang.

  • For example, though the U.S. already banned the import of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang back in January, many of these goods have likely made it past customs anyway “because [they] shipped to third countries” first, a report found last month.

China will likely take an economic hit as large multinationals, rather than trying to prove to the U.S. government that their Xinjiang-connected operations are certifiably forced labor-free, choose to relocate supply chains entirely.

  • “The way global brands have relocated their supply chains in order to avoid coercively assigned labor in Xinjiang has produced the greatest economic cost so far,” Byler told SupChina, citing Washington Post reporting from February, a month after the cotton and tomato product bans.

Beijing totally rejects the accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang. When asked about the Uyghur labor bill progressing through the U.S. Congress yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 was combative. “The label of ‘forced labor’ fits the U.S. better than anyone else…The accusation of… ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is the biggest lie of the century,” Zhao said (in English, Chinese), adding, “We will make resolute response if the U.S. insists on advancing the act.”

Meanwhile in Washington, Senator Marco Rubio, who helped spearhead the legislation, said that he would lift his hold on Nicholas Burns’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Beijing, after a colleague “argued that the ambassador to China and two other State Department roles would need to be in place to help implement the new law,” Axios reports.

  • Burns was swiftly confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to China by the Senate in a vote of 78-18.