U.S. Customs to Seize Cotton Products from Chinese Company Enslaving Uyghurs

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

American Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents will seize any imports into the country of cotton products by the Chinese Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), the U.S. announced on Wednesday, due to their use of slave labor.

Xinjiang is China’s westernmost region and home to its large Uyghur ethnic minority. The majority-Han Communist Party has spent the last two years building concentration camps in the region, extensive evidence has shown, where it has imprisoned as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minority people. Survivors of the camps list forced labor alongside torture, rape, and forced sterilization as systematic human rights atrocities Uyghurs there are subject to.

Xinjiang also grows and processes the vast majority of China’s cotton. Evidence suggests concentration camp labor has also made its way into the cotton-picking and processing industry.

Forced labor, which has a fixed legal definition, is often considered one of several practices that fall under the category of slavery. The United Nations includes it under slavery alongside forced marriage, debt bondage, and other forms of human trafficking. The practice essentially denies the personhood of the slave, treating them legally as property.

The groundbreaking Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report “Uyghurs for Sale” revealed that the Chinese Communist Party was actively incentivizing companies to buy Uyghurs as property on government websites, using racist caricatures to market the Uyghur people.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Wednesday that it had enough evidence to conclude that XPCC participated in slave labor, and thus should not have access to the American market.

“CBP’s Office of Trade directed the issuance of a Withhold Release Order (WRO) against cotton products made by the XPCC based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including convict labor,” DHS explained. “The WRO applies to all cotton and cotton products produced by the XPCC and its subordinate and affiliated entities as well as any products that are made in whole or in part with or derived from that cotton, such as apparel, garments, and textiles.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of DHS, said in a statement that the move was necessary to “make sure human rights abusers, including U.S. businesses, are not allowed to manipulate our system in order to profit from slave labor. ‘Made in China’ is not just a country of origin, it is a warning label.”

DHS and CBP have implemented a deluge of similar policies against Chinese products in the last year — eight in response to proof of slavery in China and six in the last three months specific to Xinjiang. In September, CBP passed five similar Withhold Release Orders (WRO), which permit the seizure of illegal products, against Xinjiang imports. Those WROs followed the revelation that U.S. officials had seized a disturbing shipment of human hair believed to have come from Xinjiang concentration camps in Newark, New Jersey. While the CBP never directly accused the company shipping the hair of taking it from concentration camp prisoners, it did state that the hair was evidence of “potential human right abuses of forced child labor and imprisonment.”

The hair shipment was worth $800,000.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the seizure of the hair by branding it a “naked act of bullying.” Similarly, on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying condemned the United States for standing against slavery and concentration camps.

“Some U.S. politicians have concocted disinformation of so-called ‘forced labor’ in order to restrict and oppress relevant parties and enterprises in China as well as contain China’s development,” Hua told reporters at her regular briefing. “The U.S. practice violates the international trade rules and market economy principles, destroys the global industrial chains and supply chains, and damages the interests of enterprises and consumers in various countries, including the United States.”

Hua accused American officials of seeking to implement “forced unemployment and forced poverty” in Xinjiang by curbing the practice of enslaving its citizens.

Cotton is an extremely lucrative industry for the Communist Party in Xinjiang. The region grows 84 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn represents about 20 percent of the cotton produced globally, according to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, a group of hundreds of organizations demanding action against slavery there.

“Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated,” the Coalition, which includes human rights organizations from around the world, said in a statement in July. “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.”

Attempts to cut ties between Western companies and Chinese slave labor have met significant resistance from those companies, which profit handsomely from the practice.

“As a country, we simply do not have the capability or capacity to implement or comply with or enforce a blanket WRO [Withhold Release Order] or the proposed legislation right now,” Stephen Lamar, head of the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), told Congress in September, referring to a proposed law that would ban the practice. The law, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, would require companies to prove they are not importing slave-made products before allowing them into America.

Reports indicate that some of the world’s most profitable brands — including Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, and Patagonia — have begun lobbying Congress to weaken the bill or not pass it at all.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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