by Arielle Del Turco
September 24, 2020
By passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on Tuesday with an overwhelming majority, the House of Representatives sent a message to the Chinese government that the United States is done funding China’s atrocities. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn to take up this measure which is in line with the priority and focus on religious freedom we have already seen from the Senate and the White House.
The world is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that China is detaining an estimated one to three million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education” camps, where detainees face brainwashing and torture. But the human rights abuses are not confined to the camps. The State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report found that “Many detained individuals approved to ‘graduate’ from these facilities were sent to external manufacturing sites in close proximity to the camps or in other provinces and subjected to forced labor, while others were transferred and potentially subjected to forced labor within a separate formal prison system.”
Evidence of China’s forced labor scheme in Xinjiang has been mounting over the past year. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that many Uyghurs are transferred from “re-education” camps and sent to live in dormitories on factory grounds where they work. They are made to take ideological training classes, constantly surveilled, and forbidden from practicing their religion.
While mass internment of a religious minority group can be expensive, China has found a way to financially profit from these human rights violations by forcing “re-education” camp detainees to work in factories.
Unfortunately, the supply chains of major American companies—including Nike and Apple—have been linked to Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang. In July, the New York Times found that Uyghur forced labor likely contributed to the production of face masks made in China during the response to COVID-19.
The list of companies caught in complicity is long, and many of these companies hold policies mandating responsible workplace conditions that these Xinjiang factories clearly violate. The secretive nature of the camps and factories makes investigating these concerns difficult. Therefore, it is no longer safe to assume that any goods produced in Xinjiang are free of forced labor without solid evidence to the contrary.
China’s forced labor program is just one small part of the government’s larger aim to “sinicize” religion and scrub all faiths of anything that might make someone loyal to a higher authority than the Chinese Communist Party. One local Chinese government report stated that sending young Uyghurs to work away from their home and family can change their outlook by “distancing them from religiously extreme views and educating them.”
In July, the U.S. State Department issued a business advisory warning companies about the risks of supply chains in Xinjiang linking to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor. The advisory specifically noted the dangers of aiding in the development of surveillance tools, using labor or goods sourced in Xinjiang, and assisting in the construction of internment facilities. The advisory warned of reputational, economic, and legal risks to these actions—risks that are becoming a reality. Companies that have not already considered moving their supply chains elsewhere in Asia or the world should seriously consider doing so now.
Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) issued withhold release orders on four Chinese companies and a Communist Party subsidiary known to use forced labor. The orders block products from these companies from entering the U.S. While this is an important and necessary step, forced labor taints factories throughout Xinjiang, and stopping unethically-produced products from entering the American market requires a broader approach.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act offers a practical solution to combat China’s ideologically-motivated oppression. The bill would require companies to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that any goods produced in Xinjiang imported to the U.S. are not made using forced labor—thereby hindering the Chinese government’s ability to profit from its forced labor scheme. It also calls on the U.S. secretary of state to develop a strategy for addressing forced labor in Xinjiang and sanctioning individuals responsible for the forced labor program.
While U.S. leaders, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, have stood out as global leaders criticizing China’s dismal human rights records, actions always speak louder than words. At the most fundamental level, we must ensure that American citizens and companies are not unknowingly financing the same Chinese human rights and religious freedom abuses our leaders disparage
Ultimately, Americans do not want to fund China’s rights abuses, and shopping for everyday products at brand name retailers should not put them at risk of financially supporting atrocities abroad. American companies and consumers deserve to be protected from unknowingly participating in China’s oppression of a religious minority group.
The House took an important first step by passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. It’s up to the Senate to keep the ball moving. The Senate should work to swiftly pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to ensure the U.S. plays no part in China’s oppression of the Uyghur people.