China Calls U.S. Ban on Uyghur Slave-Picked Cotton ‘Naked Act of Bullying’

This photo taken on September 20, 2015 shows Chinese farmers picking cotton in the fields
STR/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday decried the U.S.-enacted limits on importing cotton, apparel, hair products, and other goods from companies reasonably believed to be engaging in slave labor in China, calling the sanctions a “naked act of bullying.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in tandem with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), announced five new Withhold Release Orders on products from Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, believed to be home to over 1,000 concentration camps. China has imprisoned as many as 3 million Muslims, most of ethnic Uyghur descent, in the camps, where survivors say they are subject to indoctrination, torture, rape, forced sterilization, and slavery. The Withhold Release Orders prohibit importing goods from six Chinese companies operating in Xinjiang, affecting hair products, computer parts, and cotton and clothing.

The orders follow a massive bust of 13 tons of human hair from Xinjiang worth $800,000 in Newark, New Jersey, in July. At the time, CBP said the hair was likely the product of forced prison labor, though American officials could not confirm if it came from concentration camp victims. Witnesses say Communist Party officials shave the hair off of women’s heads almost immediately upon entering the facilities.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the move to keep slave-produced merchandise out of the United States as stemming from “prejudice,” presumably against China, and claiming that any reports of slavery in Xinjiang are “fabricated.”

“We urge the U.S. to respect facts, drop prejudice, stop political manipulation and using Xinjiang affairs to undermine normal economic and trade cooperation between China and the U.S.,” the state-run Global Times newspaper quoted Wang as saying. “China will continue to take all necessary measures to protect Chinese companies’ legal rights and interests.”

“It is naked acts of bullying. China firmly opposes this,” Wang continued, adding that any allegations of slavery in China were “completely fabricated by certain U.S. and Western organizations and individuals and are not facts.”

On Monday, asked to weigh in on America’s opposition to concentration camps in Xinjiang before the CBP issued its new guidelines, Wang accused Washington of supporting “terrorists.”

“The U.S. also vilifies China’s Xinjiang policy as ‘terrorism’ while it is exactly the U.S. itself that bolsters terrorists,” the spokesman claimed. “The U.S. diplomatic envoys have recently been meeting East Turkestan forces and blatantly supporting terrorist and separatist forces, which clearly exposes their double standard on counter-terrorism.”

East Turkestan is the Uyghur name for Xinjiang, technically an autonomous Uyghur province, but in practice a totalitarian surveillance state under the Han-dominated Communist Party. Wang appeared to be objecting to President Donald Trump welcoming Uyghur activists to the White House in the past and his administration appointing several Uyghur-Americans to prominent positions.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli explained that the new provisions against Chinese companies trafficking in Uyghur labor indicated both support for human rights in China and support for American workers, who cannot compete in selling fairly made good in a market flooded by low-quality products made by Communist Party slaves.

“DHS is combating illegal and inhumane forced labor, a type of modern slavery, used to make goods that the Chinese government then tries to import into the United States,” Cuccinelli said. “When China attempts to import these goods into our supply chains, it also disadvantages American workers and businesses.”

The bans affect products from six entities. Americans cannot import any products at all from of those entities — a concentration camp China calls the “Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center.” The others, both companies and suspected concentration camps (“industrial parks”) are located mostly within Xinjiang. Hefei Bitland, a company that manufactures computer parts now banned in America, is the exception — located on the other side of the country in Anhui province.

In a statement supporting the move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the Withhold Release Orders allow CBP to “detain shipments of goods produced in whole or in part by forced labor or prison labor, preventing those goods from being imported into the United States, in line with U.S. customs laws.”

“These orders demonstrate that the world will not stand for the [China’s] human rights abuses against Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, which include subjecting individuals to forced labor and stripping them of their freedom and agency to choose how and where they work,” Pompeo said.

Citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported on Monday that the limits on importing slave-produced goods were less expansive than the Trump administration’s original plan, which was to ban the importing of cotton from Xinjiang entirely. Reuters noted that Cuccinelli said during his remarks to reporters that the administration is still working through potential legal challenges to import limits.

“We want to make sure that when we do get challenged – and we assume that we will be challenged, legally – that we will prevail and none of the goods we would ultimately would seize under such a WRO would be shaken loose and released into the United States,” Cuccinelli said.

China produces about 20 percent of the world’s cotton; of that amount, nearly 85 percent grows in Xinjiang. The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, a group featuring endorsements from nearly 300 global NGOs, unions, and political organizations, estimates in its call to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang that about one in five clothing garments sold around the world can be traced back to slave-picked and -processed cotton.

“Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated,” the Coalition said in a statement in July urging world governments to limit imports from the region. “Right now, there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uyghur Region is profiting from human rights violations, including forced labour, both in the Uyghur Region and more broadly throughout China.”

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