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Congress weighs import ban on goods from China’s Uyghur region

Companies would need to prove that goods produced — in whole or in part — in Xinjiang, China, were not made with forced labor

Sen. Marco Rubio has been pushing for the ban on exports from Xinjiang for two years.
Sen. Marco Rubio has been pushing for the ban on exports from Xinjiang for two years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress may be on the verge of sending a bill to the president’s desk that would ban the import of most goods from China’s western Xinjiang region on the presumption that such products are irreparably tainted by the forced labor of the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority within the People’s Republic.

The House on Tuesday passed by voice vote compromise legislation from Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that could be swiftly taken up and cleared in the Senate through unanimous consent.

“We are pleased now to be passing a House-Senate compromise bill that meets the urgency and gravity of this challenge,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a Tuesday statement announcing that a deal had been reached on the legislation, which has been in the works for almost two years.

For now, Senate passage is still awaiting sign-off on the unanimous consent process by all 100 senators.

An attempt by Rubio on Wednesday to use the consent process to clear the bill failed when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., objected after Rubio would not agree to the Oregonian’s request to attach to the bill a measure that would extend for one year expiring child tax credits. However, Rubio did accept a proposal from Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., to modify his consent request to include confirmation of several stalled diplomatic nominees including Nicholas Burns to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China.

With the Uyghur bill, Congress essentially would be putting the burden of proof on private businesses to show the U.S. government with “clear and convincing evidence” that their goods produced — in whole or in part — in Xinjiang were not made with forced labor.

The legislation explicitly would bar the import of all goods that are partially or totally produced or manufactured in Xinjiang unless U.S. Customs and Border Protection is able to confirm such products were not made using forced labor. The measure further would forbid the import of goods that are produced outside of Xinjiang but that are made by companies that rely on Uyghur forced labor or are produced by businesses that aid the Chinese government’s forced-labor programs.

“It is a commonsense bill that says if you make things in Xinjiang then you need to prove that there is no slave labor involved in making it before you can bring that stuff into the United States,” Rubio said in a video message released by his office. “If you can’t prove it, then your product doesn’t enter the United States. It’s that simple.”

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group who live primarily in Xinjiang. Since 2017, there have been growing reports — despite concerted efforts by Beijing to suppress such reporting — of the construction and use of massive “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang that Uyghurs are forced to live in as part of an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to eliminate distinctive features of Uyghur culture.

Reports of human rights abuses

Former detainees of these internment camps have described numerous human rights abuses taking place including insufficient food, lack of medical care, sexual abuse, and torture. Estimates of the number of people forced into the camps range from 1 million to 1.8 million, according to a June issue brief from the Congressional Research Service.

“The [People’s Republic of China] government has pressured large numbers of Uyghurs, including former detainees, into accepting employment in the formal workforce, particularly in the textile, apparel, agricultural, consumer electronics, and other labor-intensive industries, in Xinjiang and other provinces,” reads the CRS report. “Uyghurs who refuse to accept such employment may be threatened with detention. Some factories utilizing Uyghur labor reportedly are tied to global supply chains. Factory employment often involves heavy surveillance and political indoctrination of Uyghurs.”  

Congressional outrage over the human rights abuses committed by Beijing against the Uyghurs has been steadily mounting and that widespread bipartisan anger eventually became enough this month to overcome months of inertia at the House and Senate leadership level as well as technical issues raised by the Biden administration.

In July, the Senate unanimously passed Rubio’s version of the bill but then progress lagged in the House. Seeking to force movement on the issue, Rubio tried to add his Uyghur legislation as an amendment to the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill. But when Rubio was denied a vote on his amendment because House lawmakers raised a procedural “blue slip” issue, the senior Florida senator withheld his consent to hold any votes on all Senate amendments to the defense measure, further drawing attention to the Uyghur labor issue.

“Once Rubio held up the NDAA amendment process and everyone was focused on the bill and why there wasn’t movement, we got to a place very quickly where there was consensus text that could pass the House and the Senate,” Dan Holler, Rubio’s deputy chief of staff, said in an interview. “The bill seemed to be floating quietly under the radar and needed a push to restart it because everyone said they were for it. The NDAA provided that push, like we hoped it would.”

Rubio has accused the Biden administration of carrying water for private business interests by seeking to dilute the strictness of the Xinjiang import ban and holding up congressional passage of the bill.

The State Department has rejected those allegations.

“We do not oppose this. We are not lobbying against it,” department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week. “This administration has, I would argue, in our first…11 months in office, perhaps done more than any administration, and has really galvanized the international community to put a spotlight on what is taking place in Xinjiang.”

The Biden administration last week cited China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” in announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics that will take place in Beijing in February.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “I don’t think I’m going to get into the details of the legislative behind-the-scenes discussions. Our effort is to often provide technical assistance to ensure that bills are implementable. … We have been clear that we share Congress’s view that action must be taken to hold the PRC accountable for its human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang.”

The Rubio-McGovern bill shortens down to six months the time period for the Xinjiang import ban going into effect compared to the 300-day implementation period allowed in the earlier legislation from Rubio that the Senate passed in July.

“Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, will continue to condemn and confront the [Chinese Communist Party’s] human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in the region and hold it accountable,” Pelosi said. “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights any place in the world.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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