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US bans Chinese Xinjiang imports

December 23, 2021

Only companies that can show proof their products were not made with slave labor will be exempt from the ban. Human rights groups claim over a million people are in detention camps in the province.

Buildings at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region
As many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps in Xinjiang like this oneImage: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

US President Joe Biden on Thursday signed a law that bans imports from China's Xinjiang province over the alleged mass repression of its Uyghur and Turkic Muslim minorities.

The Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act comes after the US claimed China is imposing slave labor, forced sterilizations and concentration camps on the people of the region.

Why is the law signficant?

The US government law, presented by members from the Democrat and Republican parties, is intended to be one of the clearest signals so far that the Biden administration will not allow China to profit from the persecution of the Uyghur people.

The law also imposes sanctions on foreign individuals responsible for forced labor.

Under its terms, only companies that can show proof their products were not made with slave labor will be exempt from the ban.

Some of the main goods Xinjiang produces are cotton, tomatoes and polysilicon used in solar panels. These areas were designated as "high priority" in the legislation.

The US Customs and Border Protection Agency said that about $9 billion (€7.9 billion) of cotton products was imported into the US from China last year, with 20% of US garments containing Xinjiang cotton.

The crackdown on slave labour was held up at first as some major corporations lobbied against the legislation.

Earlier on Thursday, Intel apologized to China after asking suppliers to avoid Xinjiang province in accordance with the new rules. Top US celebrities have had to pull out from sponsorship deals with companies that have factories in the area.

The law was passed at the US House of Representatives and the Senate last week before the president signed it off on Thursday ahead of the festive break.

What have major voices said?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted he had "promised to promote accountability" when he met internment camp survivors, family members and advocates earlier this year.

"Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains," Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of those who introduced the original bill, said.

"For those who have not done that, they'll no longer be able to continue to make Americans — every one of us, frankly — unwitting accomplices in the atrocities, in the genocide that's being committed by the Chinese Communist Party."

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said in a statement that the move would "send a resounding and unequivocal message against genocide and slave labor."

"Now ... we can finally ensure that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China's horrific human rights abuses," he added.

But Nury Turkel Uyghur-American vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said its goals could be defeated if the Biden administration provide waivers to companies.

How serious are China's actions?

China has repeatedly denied allegations by human rights groups in the region that it is carrying out mass repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the region.

In 2014, Beijing declared a People's War against what it called the "Three Evil Forces" of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. It followed deadly terrorist attacks in the region.

But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that China is carrying out crimes against humanity.

"As many as a million people have been arbitrarily detained in 300 to 400 facilities, which include "political education” camps, pretrial detention centers, and prisons," said HRW this year.

"Courts have handed down harsh prison sentences without due process, sentencing Turkic Muslims to years in prison merely for sending an Islamic religious recording to a family member or downloading e-books in Uyghur," HRW added.

HRW China director Sophie Richardson applauded the move on Twitter and demanded China be put on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

In October, 43 UN members demanded access to the Xinjiang province to investigate the claims.

jc/aw (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

Amnesty: China committing 'crimes against humanity'