The U.S. must do more to ensure that goods imported from China are not produced through forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where Uyghurs are subject to mass detentions under the guise of “vocational training,” experts said Thursday.
Speaking at a hearing in Washington held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), witnesses highlighted reports of a widespread system of forced labor in the XUAR, which requires Uyghurs and other ethnic minority Muslims to work in the production of textiles, food, and light manufacturing.
In addition to non-detainees, the system has been reported to rely on forced labor from those held in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million people accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher who studies China's minority policies and first put forth the now widely accepted estimate of camp detainees, detailed a forced labor system he called even “more shocking” than that of the internment camps, which he said involved coerced military, political, and vocational training for the purpose of working in officially subsidized companies as part of a “business of oppression.”
He said that those who refuse work assignments are regularly threatened with internment or further detention, creating a situation in which “forced labor is equated with salvation.”
China is the world’s largest cotton producer and Zenz noted that some 84 percent of China’s cotton is produced in the XUAR, meaning that between the textile industry and other forms of work—including on components that are sent to eastern China and incorporated into finished products—it is extremely difficult for customs officials in the U.S. to determine whether imported goods are linked to forced labor in the region.
Last week the U.S. Department of Commerce said that it had blacklisted 28 governmental or commercial entities from China it believes are implicated in rights abuses in the XUAR, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials seen as “responsible for, or complicit in, the detention and abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, or other members of Muslim minority groups” in the region.
But while Zenz welcomed those moves on Thursday, he called for stricter requirements on U.S. companies to investigate the supply chain of the products they source in China.
China has long used prison inmates for forced labor, and since establishing rule in the XUAR in 1949, the Communist Party has relocated prisoners from elsewhere in the country to the region for hard labor and to “contribute to economic development” there.
The U.S. employs tough restrictions on the importation of goods made with forced labor under the Tariff Act of 1930, but the law is difficult to enforce, as evidence of violations are typically hard to prove.
In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that Adidas AG, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) AB, Kraft Heinz Co., Coca-Cola Co. and Gap Inc. “are among those at the end of the long, often opaque supply chains that travel through China’s northwest region of Xinjiang,” where residents are “routinely forced into training programs that feed workers to area factories,” citing locals, official notices and state media.
The Journal said that resistance to such programs by workers and factory bosses could lead to their detention “as suspected extremist sympathizers, even while companies its reporters spoke with noted that the training would violate policies for suppliers, which require responsible workplace conditions.
“Much of this has taken place under the radar,” the report said, adding that “Beijing has directed Chinese companies to bring jobs to Xinjiang, often through subcontracting that isn’t known to Western companies, as part of the government’s effort to reduce what it says is violence and religious extremism in the area.”
‘Crimes against humanity’
At Thursday’s hearing, Amy Lehr, the director of the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told commission members that state-backed forced labor in the XUAR likely constitutes “crimes against humanity,” and warned that the number of people caught up in the system is “likely to be very significant.”
She recommended that lawmakers push for tougher sanctions against officials believed linked to rights abuses in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, based on a measure created to address rights violations by the Putin regime in Russia.
Lehr also called for the creation of a public watch list detailing goods identified as being produced through, and entities associated with, forced labor in the XUAR to inform decisions on possible sanctions and warn companies sourcing from China about whether their supply chain is linked to the system.
She said that U.S. companies should be required to carry out better due diligence, although she acknowledged the difficulty in determining the use of forced labor as Chinese authorities seek to obscure its part in production, and potentially consider a halt to their purchase of cotton from China.
Lehr urged the U.S. to work with allied governments to ensure that similar protections are put in place in their countries and prevent goods tied to forced labor in the XUAR from ending up exported elsewhere in the world and China to evade scrutiny over its practices in the region.
Calls for greater examination of products being sourced in China by U.S. companies were echoed by Nury Turkel, a lawyer and chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, who said that the “burden of proof” that production does not involve forced labor should be shifted to U.S. companies.
Michael Posner, the director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, also called on Washington to “name names,” pass legislation, and better implement the law to guarantee that companies involved in forced labor “feel the bite.”
He also applauded last week’s moves by Washington to hold China accountable for its policies in the XUAR, as well as the Senate’s passage last month of the first legislation by any nation in response to human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs in the region, which would authorize regular monitoring of the situation by various government bodies.
The bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, introduced by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey would appoint a special State Department coordinator on the XUAR and require regular reports on the region’s internment camps, surveillance network and security threats posed by an ongoing crackdown on the Uyghur people—if ratified by the House of Representatives.
But he called on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to do more, saying that he had been “unable or unwilling to speak out about human rights abuses,” and that victims of human rights abuses in the XUAR “need our leadership.”
Lawmakers weigh in
Thursday’s hearing was opened by CECC chair and co-chair U.S. Representative Jim McGovern and Senator Marco Rubio—who co-authored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act—and Rubio called the practice of forced labor in the XUAR nothing short of “slavery.”
“American companies are all too unaware of what is taking place,” he said, adding that better protections “are long overdue” and necessary so that stakeholders can “learn the real risks of doing business with China.”
Republican Congressman Christopher Smith, a veteran critic of Chinese human rights practices, called forced labor a “staple of exploitation” for the Chinese government against its citizens and said that it has “gone into hyperdrive” in the XUAR, where he likened mass incarcerations and other repressive policies against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to “genocide.”
He also urged the “aggressive” use of sanctions by the U.S. against China under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Thursday’s hearing came a day after the Four Corners investigative team with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published a report which said that retailers Cotton On and Target Australia had stopped sourcing cotton from the XUAR over concerns about rights abuses there, following investigations into their supply chains.
In July, the Australian branches of Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M were also revealed to source cotton from the XUAR, the report said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection accuses Hetian Taida Apparel Co. in the XUAR of using forced or prison labor, and last month banned U.S. imports of the company’s garments.
Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.