WASHINGTON – The US government announced on Wednesday that it would stop imports of cotton and tomatoes from China’s Uyghur region to pressure the Communist Party on its campaign against ethnic minorities.
Officials said customs and border security would use their authority to block products suspected of being produced with forced labor to exclude cotton, tomatoes and related products from the Xinjiang region of northwestern China.
Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so this order could have a significant impact on international commerce. The Trump administration has already halted imports from individual companies linked to forced labor in the region, and the US has banned Communist Party officials with key roles in the campaign.
This order will put economic pressure on not only China but also major global retailers, who inadvertently or otherwise import goods produced by people due to the slavery of modern conditions.
Worker Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova said, “Any global apparel brand that is either not already out of Xinjiang, or is plotting a very fast exit, is triggering a legal and prestigious disaster.” “The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton.”
The consortium estimates that the US ban affects about 20 percent of the global cotton supply.
Some in the private sector have argued against a sector-wide order, saying it can punish legitimate producers and because it can be difficult to ensure that tainted raw materials do not enter the supply chain. This is especially true with Chinese cotton used to make clothes for export to other countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.
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According to Brenda Smith, acting assistant commissioner of the Office of Customs and Border Protection, the US imported nearly $ 9 billion worth of cotton goods from China last year. It does not include products from third countries.
Last year, about US $ 10 million in tomato products arrived in the US from China, Smith said.
In November, the US intercepted goods from a company that controlled one-third of cotton production in the Uygur region and produced about 6 percent of cotton globally. Under that order, CBP has barred 43 shipments from entering the US, all valued at more than $ 2 million, Smith said.
Acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, Ken Cuccinelli, in a conference call with reporters, announced the latest measure, saying, “The ultimate goal is that China gives up on these horrific practices.”
In a vast network of concentration camps, China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uygars and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups. People have been subjected to atrocities, sterilization and political indulgence in addition to forced labor as part of an assimilation campaign in an area whose residents are ethnically and culturally isolated from the Han Chinese majority.
Uighur forced labor has been linked to the Associated Press by reporting various products imported into the US, including clothing and electronic goods such as cameras and computer monitors. Smith and Mark Morgan, acting CBP commissioners, credited media and NGOs with supplying information that resulted in attempts to block imports.
China has denied the allegations of rights abuses and forced labor, saying it only aims to promote economic and social development in the region and stamp out radicalism. It also rejects criticism of what it considers its internal affairs.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian asked about the issue at a news conference on Wednesday, saying people in Xinjiang voluntarily sign contracts and are paid. “So-called forced labor is nothing but a lie fabricated by some institutions and individuals in Western countries.”
The US action is the latest, and most widespread, attempt to pressure China to end the campaign. Both Canada and the British government recently stated that they too would take steps to prevent tainted goods from forced labor in their countries.
Customs and border protection have in the past targeted entire product lines and regions with import restrictions, including issuing an order against cotton from Turkmenistan in 2018 and gold from artisan mines in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 .