By Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han

The Department of Homeland Security announced today that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents would begin turning away products sourced from forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China, where more than a million Muslims, mostly of the Uyghur minority, have been imprisoned in concentration camps. The ban will include cotton, hair products, computer components, and some textiles.

We welcome the Trump administration’s effort to crack down on the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities in the region.

Uyghur human rights group and our organization Citizen Power Initiatives for China have petitioned US Customs demanding ban on import of cotton goods from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). We submitted an application to the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on August 31, 2020 urging it to issue a regional withhold release order (WRO) on all cotton-made goods linked to XUAR based on evidence of widespread enforced labour. Under U.S. law, it is illegal for the United States to allow entry of goods, “produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labour or/and forced and indentured labour”.

Credible reports including our research monograph Cotton: The Fabric Full of Lies and widespread media coverage have thoroughly documented that global garment supply chains are tainted by enforced labour and systematic human rights abuses against the ethnic Uyghur Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang region. Abuses include sterilization, violence, forced labour and imprisonment of Uyghurs. A revelation about the exploitation of Uighur Muslims was made in March this year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The ASPI’s report claimed that at least 80,000 Uyghurs had been subjected to do “forced labour” in factories across China supplying to 83 global brands. The report identified a network of at least 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces where more than 80,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang had been transferred. When confronted, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had said, “Those studying in vocational centres have all graduated and are employed with the help of our government. They now live a happy life”.

In July 2020, over 200 human and labour rights investor organizations launched a campaign, “End Uyghur Forced Labour”, calling on global corporations to divest from the region. Omer Kanat, Executive Director, Uyghur Human Rights Project said that it was time for concrete action to bring enforcement in line with reality. The large-scale forced-labour programme is a core part of Chinese government’s plan for control and surveillance of Uyghurs. It is deliberate policy carried out in every corner of the Uyghur homeland.

In another development, the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), along with the World Uyghur Congress, is filing a companion petition with the US CBP based on a similar complaint filed with UK authorities earlier this year alleging widespread prison labour. UK law prohibits the import of prison labour-made goods.

In 2018, the CBP had issued a WRO on all cotton and cotton-made goods originating from Turkmenistan because of the country’s state-sponsored programme of forced labour in the cotton sector. Similarly, given the scale and severity of state-sponsored forced labour and other abuses targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim and Turkic people in Xinjiang, the same threshold id right being applied in XUAR.

According to DHS officials, they had narrowed the ban to include only a few specific products for the order to be “legally unassailable” but that more prohibitions are to come. We are joining fellow Uyghur human rights activists in thanking the US government for taking these concrete actions and calling for other democracies to follow the suite.