INTERVIEW: ‘We have zero tolerance for the importation of products made with forced labor’

Robert Silvers of the US Department of Homeland Security discusses enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
By Alim Seytoff
2024.03.19
INTERVIEW: ‘We have zero tolerance for the importation of products made with forced labor’ Robert Silvers, US Homeland Security undersecretary for Strategy, Policy and Plans, speaks at a conference in New York City, Sept. 14, 2022.
David “Dee” Delgado/Reuters

Robert Silvers has served as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, since 2021. In early March, he met with members of the Uyghur diaspora community in northern Virginia to discuss the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the Chinese government’s transnational repression of Uyghurs abroad.

In an interview with RFA Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff, Silvers discussed how the DHS is enforcing the act, signed into law in December 2021. The law prohibits imports of raw material and products or components made by forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into the United States.  

Silvers also efforts to combat transnational repression and accusations by Beijing that the U.S. government has fabricated the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the use of Uyghur forced labor there. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: You recently visited the Uyghur American community in northern Virginia. What was your message to them? 

Silvers: There’s a significant Uyghur diaspora community out in Fairfax, Virginia, about a 40 to 45-minute drive from here, and it was incredibly inspiring and significant to me to be invited into the community by the Uyghur American Association to meet with them, hear their concerns directly, share the work that we are doing in our department to protect them every day. 

And my message was, this is a community that needs our protection and deserves our protection. The story of the Uyghur people must be told because there are forces in the People’s Republic of China that do not want that story to be told. They are taking active measures to silence that story, to cleanse that story. We will not allow that here in the United States. 

RFA: Transnational repression is a big concern for the Uyghur American community. What measures has the Department of Homeland Security taken to protect Uyghur Americans from China’s transnational repression? 

Silvers: What we’ve seen more and more from autocratic regimes like China, Russia, Iran and others is increasing effort not just to repress people in their own countries, but to reach out to diaspora communities abroad to repress and intimidate people there, including in the United States,  and especially vulnerable populations like the Uyghur community. 

What we’ve done at the Department of Homeland Security is we’ve identified this as a problem that offends our American values, our rights to freedom of expression and religion and more. And we are taking steps to protect communities from transnational repression. 

For example, last year we launched a vulnerable community cybersecurity program where communities like the Uyghurs can come in and get advice at no charge on how to protect themselves from cybersecurity threats from foreign governments that may seek to hack their phones or conduct digital surveillance on them. That’s really important to us. 

Police officers stand at the outer entrance of Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, April 23, 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
Police officers stand at the outer entrance of Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, April 23, 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

We also have been leaning very strongly on Interpol, the international law enforcement association, to make sure that its law enforcement processes are not abused by authoritarian regimes like China that would seek to use legitimate law enforcement channels to crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists and the like, which has been a major problem. We are Interpol’s biggest donor, so we have made clear that this is a very high priority for us. At our urging, Interpol has made some significant reforms, which is good to see, but more needs to be done. 

RFA: We have seen over the past year Chinese agents coming from China harassing and threatening some of the Uyghur Americans here in the U.S. We increasingly see individuals and certain groups that openly attack prominent Uyghur leaders and legitimate Uyghur organizations. What is the DHS doing about this? 

Silvers: If there are any individuals that are engaged in illegal transnational repression practices, we will use every law enforcement tool at our disposal to disrupt them and to protect vulnerable communities. If there are agents of foreign governments who are doing that in violation of their visa restrictions, that could be a cause of investigation. 

We work closely with the FBI [and] with state and local law enforcement to make sure that any agent of transnational repression, whether they be a direct agent of a foreign government or an intermediary, are investigated and disrupted and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. 

RFA: If a Uyghur receives a message from a Chinese agent on WhatsApp or Signal, saying that China is holding one of their relatives and that they need to do something for the agent, then how can that person report the incident to the FBI or to the Department of Homeland Security? Who receives the type of protection you’re talking about? 

Silvers: We have field offices around the country where community members can reach out and report that information to us as soon as possible so that we can help protect them and investigate. You mentioned threats to punish family members who reside back in the home country. Some people call them exit bans, [others] call them hostage taking. It’s an alarming and inhumane practice. 

When I’ve met with members of the Uyghur American community here, or other diaspora Uyghur communities in European cities and the like, I hear heartbreaking stories of family members of theirs who are being effectively imprisoned, not allowed to leave China because of what their activist relatives have [done] with their lives in the United States or Europe. Our administration has been very direct with the Chinese government about the importance of allowing people to come together with their family and leave the country if they want to. This is going to continue to be an ongoing focus of ours. 

RFA: DHS has been implementing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act for nearly two years, confiscating many products made by Uyghur forced labor. But we still see some products here that the Chinese government produced in Xinjiang, such as red dates from Xinjiang being sold in Asian markets. Some of the dates have been produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps — a state-owned enterprise and paramilitary organization in the region that has been sanctioned by the U.S. government. What challenges does DHS face in implementing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act?

Silvers: Our enforcement of this landmark new law has been strong. We have detained over $2.6 billion of cargo in less than two years under this act — thousands of shipments of tomatoes, cotton products, apparel, polysilicon, aluminum and metals, automotive parts and agricultural products. Our work is certainly not done. 

A farmer shows newly harvested red dates in Hotan county in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 6, 2020. (Ding Lei/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A farmer shows newly harvested red dates in Hotan county in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 6, 2020. (Ding Lei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Supply chains are incredibly complex. You will often have six, seven, eight tiers down the supply chain that need to be investigated to determine if some component or subcomponent may be coming from Xinjiang province. That requires a lot of work on our part, and also on the part of importers and American companies that want to do the right thing. There are challenges in understanding the downstream provenance, but clearly our enforcement of this law is impacting supply chains. It is moving through supply chains.

You see company after company that is revisiting its willingness to have a footprint in Uyghur regions in China. You see companies looking to diversify their supply chains to lower risk sources. You see companies for the first time having really meaningful supply chain due diligence so that they can get to the bottom of what is coming into their products before they ship them to the United States. 

It is unprecedented the improvement in supply chains that we have seen since we started enforcing this law here at the Department of Homeland Security two years ago. There is a lot more work to do. But make no mistake, the community knows they have to know their supply chains and that we have zero tolerance for the importation of products made with forced labor, including forced labor by Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  

RFA: The Chinese government is using Uyghur forced labor to produce many different products that are exported to the U.S. But because of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, China is trying to diversify its own supply chains by using third countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia to export their products to the U.S. How is DHS dealing with this?

Silvers: Some of the movement of supply chains is actually quite welcome. If companies are moving operations out of Xinjiang to other countries around the world where there is more integrity and reliability to the supply chain, it is easier to validate that it’s clean from a forced labor perspective. Yes, that’s a welcome development. 

Another story altogether is something we call transshipment, which is where to conceal the true provenance of goods. Those goods are simply routed around through other countries and then sent to the United States. That we will not tolerate. We have made transshipment an enforcement priority, and we actively investigate and bring enforcement action. Any time we see evidence of transshipment, including through countries like those you mentioned. 

I will note that if you go to our data, our enforcement data on our forced labor enforcement, we’ve made that publicly available so the world can see many of the shipments that are detained are actually not originating in China. They are originating in other countries — a lot of them in Southeast Asia. But because there are illicit, supply chains feed into those, and so we are all over it from an enforcement perspective. 

RFA: The online Chinese retailers Shein and Temu ship about 1 million packages to the U.S. daily. Last year, a Bloomberg reporter purchased some clothing from Shein, then through testing found that the cotton came from Xinjiang. How is DHS ensuring that the retailers comply with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act? 

Silvers: I’ll just say I’m not going to address any particular company. We don't talk about particular companies, particular investigations of the like. Let me be clear. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act applies to any imports into this country, including fast-fashion imports. When we have evidence that any product coming in is tainted by forced labor, we’re going to bring enforcement. 

People walk past the booth of fast fashion e-commerce company SHEIN during the China International Supply Chain Expo in Beijing, Dec. 1, 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)
People walk past the booth of fast fashion e-commerce company SHEIN during the China International Supply Chain Expo in Beijing, Dec. 1, 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)

We believe that the longstanding exception to our customs law called the de minimis exemption is a source of concern, and that we need to work together with Congress on what should be done to address it under the de minimis exemption. Shipments worth less than $800 are subject to less data collection, and that makes it harder to conduct investigative activities. We are very concerned that the use of de minimis can undermine our enforcement of forced labor laws as well as laws prohibiting the importation of fentanyl or counterfeit items, or any other number of contraband items. This is something we’re quite attuned to, and we are looking at potential solutions. You should expect them to come in that regard. 

RFA: The Chinese government has accused the U.S. government of fabricating the Uyghur genocide and Uyghur forced labor issue, calling them the “lies of the 21st century.” China also says the U.S. and allied Western countries don’t want China to rise. That is the narrative they are selling to Muslim countries and others. It’s hostile to the U.S., so what’s your response to this? 

Silvers: Perpetrators of genocide and atrocities often lie and say that those things didn’t happen. I come from a Jewish-American family. I understand the history of genocide and human rights atrocities that can be targeted at a population. I see a similar history when I talk to members of the Uyghur American community. 

When I was at that event in Fairfax, Virginia, I spoke with three women who had been in Uyghur internment camps. There’s no denying the extensive evidence of human rights violations and forced labor. We in the United States government, we at the Department of Homeland Security, will not keep silent on this.  

Video shot by Bahram Sintash for RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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