WASHINGTON – The U.S. government announced Wednesday that it has so far stopped importing cotton and tomatoes from China’s Uyghur region to put pressure on the Communist Party over its campaign against ethnic minorities.
Officials said customs and border security will use its power to prevent products suspected to be being produced with forced labor to keep cotton, tomatoes and related products from the Xinjiang region of northwest China.
Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so this order could have significant implications for international trade. The Trump administration has already banned imports from private companies involved in forced labor in the region, and the United States has imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials who play a key role in the campaign.
This order will put economic pressure not only on China, but also on large global retailers who are unaware or import goods that people produce under conditions similar to modern world slavery.
“No global clothing brand has already left Xinjiang, or is planning to leave very soon, which faces a legal and glorious catastrophe,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Federation of Labor Rights, which includes labor and human rights groups. “Gone are the days when any major clothing brand could safely profit from Xinjiang cotton.”
The federation estimates that the US embargo will affect 20 percent of global cotton supply.
Some in the private sector have argued against regional-level regulation, saying it could impose fines on legitimate manufacturers and make it difficult to ensure that contaminated raw materials do not enter the supply chain. This is especially true of Chinese cotton, which is used to make garments for export in other countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.
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According to Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Customs and Border Protection, the United States imported about $ 9 billion worth of cotton from China last year. It does not include third country products.
Smith said about $ 10 million worth of tomato products entered the United States from China last year.
In November, the United States blocked supplies from a company that controls one-third of cotton production in the Uyghur region and 6 percent of cotton worldwide. Under that order, the CBP has stopped 43 ships from entering the United States, valued at more than $ 2 million in total, Smith said.
“The ultimate goal is for China to abandon these heinous practices,” Ken Cucinelli, the Undersecretary of State for Homeland Security, told a news conference.
China has imprisoned more than 1 million people in vast concentration camps, including Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups. In addition to forced labor, people have been subjected to torture, contraception and political instruction as part of a cohesive campaign in a region that is ethnically and culturally different from the Han Chinese majority.
Uyghur compulsory labor has been linked to reports from the Associated Press on a variety of products imported into the United States, including clothing and electronics such as cameras and computer monitors. CBP Commissioners Smith and Mark Morgan resulted in efforts to import credits by providing information to the media and NGOs.
China denies allegations of human rights abuses and forced labor, which are aimed only at promoting economic and social development in the region and curbing terrorism. It also rejects criticism of its consideration of its internal affairs.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian asked about the issue at a press conference on Wednesday, saying people in Xinjiang are signing contracts voluntarily and they are being paid. “The so-called forced labor is nothing but a lie fabricated by some companies and individuals in Western countries,” he said.
The US move is the latest and biggest attempt to pressure China to end the campaign. Canada and the British government have recently said they will take action to prevent tainted goods from entering their countries.
Customs and border security have in the past targeted entire product lines and territories with import bans, including an order issued in 2018 against cotton from Turkmenistan and by 2019 gold from handicraft mines in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.