– by Aryaman Telang
On Wednesday, 11th March 2020, U.S. lawmakers proposed legislation with the aim of preventing goods made using forced labor by minority Uyghur Muslims in China from reaching the United States. The Uyghurs are a Turkic minority ethnic group originally from the Central Asia region that live in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in North-Western China. The province’s name suggest the Uyghurs have self-governance and autonomy. But much like Tibet, the Xinjiang Region is a tightly controlled part of China.
The bill introduced in the American Legislature has been co-sponsored by six Democrats and five Republicans in the Congress and one Republican and two Democratic Senators in the US Senate. It cites studies and news reports over the past years that have documented how the millions of Muslim Uyghur and Kazakh minorities across Xinjiang have been recruited into programs that force them to work on farms, textile mills, factories and menial jobs in cities for little to no pay.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China released a report along with the proposed bill warning that global supply chains are increasingly at risk of being tainted with goods made with forced labour from Xinjiang and that the United States should consider a comprehensive import ban on all goods produced, wholly or in part, in the province.
President Xi Jinping of China has taken a hardlines approach towards the Muslim minorities of Xinjiang. Uyghur civilians are being arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned and approximately one million Uyghurs have been imprisoned without trial in detention centers which resemble high-security jails. There is growing evidence of multiple human rights violations inside the centers as well as reports of custodial deaths, brainwashing and forced labour.
Beijing for its part claims the detention centers across Xinjiang are for “vocational training” for voluntary re-education purposes to counter extremism. However, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has found evidence undermining this claim in the form of leaked government documents labelled “The China Cables” which include a nine-page memo sent out in 2017 by Zhu Hailun, the then deputy-secretary of the Communist Party of Xinjiang to the officials that run the camps, making clear that the camps should be run as high-security prisons with strict discipline, punishments and no escapes.
Thus, the crux of the proposed Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act is presumption that assumes all manufactured goods from Xinjiang are made with forced labour and therefore banned under the 1930 Tariff Act unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the goods were manufactured without forced labour, and if the US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner certifies it. This shifts the burden of evidence from the current rule that bans goods only if there is a reasonable evidence of forced labour.
The bill would require firms to disclose any activities in Xinjiang and calls for the US President to impose sanctions on any person who knowingly engages in the forced labour programs.
If the proposal is passed into law, it would have a significant impact on Xinjiang’s cotton industry which produces a significant portion of the world’s cotton. The bill is likely to anger China, months after Washington DC and Beijing reached an understanding to ease a damaging trade war.
The chances of the bill passing are not yet clear. However, the US Congress has shown broad bipartisan support for human rights legislations targeting China in the past. Just last year, President Trump signed into action a law authorizing sanctions of Hong Kong officials found in violation of human rights and requiring an annual review of the city’s status as a semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The House and Senate have also passed versions of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act which would require American Intelligence Agencies and the US State Department to report any human rights violations they detect in Xinjiang.
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has promoted the idea of the Uyghur ethnic group as a terrorist collective. This along with a rise of Islamophobia across China has allowed Beijing to justify its transformation of Xinjiang into a surveillance state. Chinese State surveillance includes facial and voice recognition, DNA sampling, iris scanners and 3D identification imagery of Uyghur Muslims.
Recently, more than 100 Uyghur intellectuals including writers, poets, journalists and university professors have been identified as being amongst the detained. Beijing views any dissent or criticism of the Chinese Communist Party to be threatening and minority discontent is treated as a danger to national security, even if it includes moderate voices calling for improvements in employment opportunities, education, and healthcare.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Report on has named major multinational firms which are suspected of employing forced labour directly or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labour.
In response, the Washington-based Fair Labor Association (FLA) which conducts due diligence for MNCs including the ones named in the report like Adidas, Espirit and Nike among others, said that it was deeply troubled by the credible reports of fundamental rights violations and that it has directed its affiliates to review their direct and indirect sourcing supply chains, to identify alternative sourcing chains and develop plans in a timely manner to ensure that their sourcing is in line with the FLA’s principles.