On July 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Port of New York/Newark detained a shipment of products believed to be made with human hair originating in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which the agency said indicated potential human right abuses of forced child labor and imprisonment. The products were part of shipment of nearly 13 tons of hair products worth more than U.S. $800,000. The seizure followed a withhold release order on hair products manufactured by Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd. and the CBP’s June 17 instruction to all ports of entry to detain such products, citing information that indicated they had been made with the use of prison labor.
On May 1, CBP had placed a similar withhold release order on hair products made by Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories, a company registered in an industrial park in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Lop (Luopu) county, in the same location as an internment camp. Previously, CBP also banned goods from a company named Hetian Taida. Uyghur exile groups had welcomed the decision and encouraged other nations to take similar steps to address the importation of goods made with forced labor at factories that are increasingly linked to the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017.
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently spoke with Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner of the CBP’s Office of Trade about the shipment seizure and what her agency plans to do with the products. According to Smith, the products will undergo a DNA test to determine whether they are comprised of human or artificial hair. She also discussed other products from Xinjiang that the CBP is monitoring for suspected ties to forced labor.
RFA: What is CBP going to do with these 13 tons of hair weaves? What is the next step?
Smith: At this point we will continue our investigation into this specific shipment, including laboratory testing of the product, and we will also give the importer 90 days to submit information to Customs and Border Protection if they choose to, which would show that forced labor was not used in the production of these specific products. If after the 90 days they have not provided sufficient information, we can then seize the goods and destroy them. The other thing that the importer can do is choose to re-export those goods out of the United States.
RFA: Is it possible to perform a DNA test on the hair products to confirm that they belong to Uyghurs? If yes, would you allow the human rights organizations or experts to conduct the testing because this could be potential evidence of a crime against humanity?
Smith: The next step will be to determine or to confirm that it is in fact human hair, as opposed to artificial hair. CBP will work with an outside testing organization in order to do that. And I’m not sure whether or not we are able to test for the ethnic composition of the DNA. It would be a laboratory that is certified to conduct this sort of testing, as opposed to a human rights organization.
RFA: What other products besides hair coming from Xinjiang is the CBP is going to target next?
Smith: What we find is that often in basic manufacturing industries such as apparel, consumer electronics that are fairly low value, as well as some food processing, and things like agricultural production … that is typically where we find a very vulnerable labor force. And so, in Xinjiang, we will continue to look for those. We will also continue to look at the more significant exports from that part of China in order to identify further risks.
RFA: [Senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation] Dr. Adrian Zenz claims all products coming from Xinjiang is tainted with forced labor and therefore the U.S. should ban all imports from Xinjiang. What’s your view on this?
Our law enforcement authority requires us to be very specific about two things: One, that the shipment which was produced with forced labor is actually coming to or likely to come to the United States. And for us to be able to take a detention or a seizure action, we must be able to identify, or to track and to trace, that shipment as it arrives into a port of entry. So, our legal authority requires us to be very specific about the shipment. Our legal authority also requires us to meet the standard of reasonable but not conclusive, and so we must actually have evidence, which we gather from a variety of sources, in order to meet the legal standard of reasonable but not conclusive.
Typically, when we do forced labor investigations, the best information comes from a visit by CBP representatives to a production facility. It can also extend to witness testimony from individuals who have actually participated in circumstances which qualify as forced labor. In this instance, in China, because CBP representatives are unable to visit production facilities, we rely on witness testimony gathered by, for example, human rights organizations, nongovernmental or civil society organizations. We also rely on investigative journalism or information that was leaked by advocates that represent the policy positions for operations relevant to Xinjiang.
One of the things we want the U.S. trade community to be involved [in], and those that are sending goods to the United States, is we want them to be aware of their responsibility. Our legal authorities are very focused on those companies that bring shipments into the United States and it is their responsibility to ensure that the goods that they are importing to the U.S. are free of forced labor concerns. And so, we want to make sure that they understand what those responsibilities are and that they are compliant, even if the production of the basic goods happened three or four layers down in the supply chain.
Reported by Gulchechre Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.