U.S. Issues Total Ban on Xinjiang Cotton and Tomatoes

The U.S. government has banned the importation of all cotton and tomatoes produced in Xinjiang over concerns about the widespread use of forced labor in the region. The move is the most sweeping measure to date to block the import of goods made in Xinjiang, which produces as much as 20% of the world’s supply of cotton. Reuters’ David Lawder reported on the details of the ban, which was announced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday:

The action applies to raw fibers, apparel and textiles made from Xinjiang-grown cotton, as well as tomato-based food products and seeds from the region. The ban, knows as a withhold release order, also applies to products processed or manufactured in third countries, CBP officials told a news briefing.

The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), estimates that about $9 billion of cotton products and $10 million worth of tomato products were imported into the United States in the past year.

DHS acting deputy secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli said the order sends a message to importers that “DHS will not tolerate forced labor of any kind” and companies should eradicate Xinjiang products from their supply chains. [Source]

Cotton and tomatoes produced in the region have made their way into the goods produced by many well known brands. The New York Times’ Ana Swanson reported on some of the multinationals that have previously benefitted from cotton and tomato products sourced from Xinjiang:

The Workers Rights Consortium estimates that American brands and retailers import more than 1.5 billion garments that use Xinjiang materials every year, representing more than $20 billion in retail sales. China is also the world’s largest tomato producer, with Xinjiang accounting for most of that production, the group says.

Independent researchers and media reports have linked dozens of the world’s most prominent multinational companies to workers or products from Xinjiang, including Apple, Nike, Kraft Heinz and Campbell Soup. Campbell said it no longer sources products from the Xinjiang region.

Some textile and apparel companies that used cotton or yarn from Xinjiang have announced that they are severing ties, including Patagonia, Marks and Spencer and H&M. But many firms have found it difficult to trace the origins of all the products used by their Chinese suppliers, especially given the lack of access for independent auditors to facilities in Xinjiang. [Source]

The total ban is a step up in scope from a similar withhold release order issued by CBP in December, which banned all cotton and cotton products produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), the paramilitary and economic organization that governs many parts of the region. CBP officials had cited the alleged widespread use of forced labor in XPCC managed facilities. A subsequent report published by the Center for Global Policy and the BBC found that the scale of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton sector extends far beyond just suppliers controlled by the XPCC, concluding that the number of people subject to forced labor across the province was substantially greater than previously thought.

Officials in the Trump Administration had made plans as early as September 2020 to issue a blanket withhold release order (WRO) against Xinjiang cotton and tomatoes. However, it was reported that officials with the Treasury Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative lobbied to water down the WRO, arguing that the measure would hurt the U.S.-China Phase One trade deal.

In the waning days of the Trump administration, and with China having failed to meet its purchase commitments under the trade deal, the White House has little left to lose in imposing the blanket WRO. The New York Times reported earlier this week that the administration has been rushing to introduce a slew of business measures in its final days, including prohibitions against Chinese apps and products.

The U.S. ban comes amid growing momentum in the West to restrict goods produced in Xinjiang over the ongoing use of forced labor and genocide there. This week, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced new measures to scrutinize imports from Xinjiang, including fines if companies fail to show due diligence in their supply chains. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour reported on the new measures, noting that a total ban on cotton was ruled out:

The measures due to be announced by Raab and the trade secretary, Liz Truss, in the Commons on Wednesday come as a Conservative party human rights commission (CPHRC) backed by former Tory foreign secretaries prepare to demand the government do more to challenge China.

The Foreign Office does not regard its supply chain measures as representing a definitive new government stance on British-Chinese relations, and will steer clear of proposing sanctions against officials involved in the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

The CPHRC will claim forced labour is rife in Xinjiang province, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. The Chinese government has long denied the claims, insisting that camps for workers are “vocational training schools” and factories are part of a huge, and voluntary, poverty alleviation scheme. [Source]

In a parallel announcement on the same day, Canada announced that it would also ban the import of goods made by forced labor in Xinjiang, and would require companies with ties to Xinjiang to sign a declaration acknowledging their recognition of the “human rights situation in Xinjiang.” In Australia, a bill introduced to the federal parliament in December 2020 would ban the importation of all goods made in Xinjiang.

On the other hand, the E.U. has shown little interest in pressuring Beijing to suspend its use of forced labor in Xinjiang. On Tuesday, France’s junior trade minister said that the bloc would not wait for Beijing to ban forced labor before ratifying the investment agreement with China that was hastily signed at the end of December 2020.

Major brands have pushed back against measures to curtail imports from Xinjiang. In November, it was reported that companies including Apple and Nike were lobbying to water down a bipartisan bill in Congress that would block all imports from Xinjiang unless companies are able to prove that the supply chains did not employ forced labor. While brands have cited the impossibility or prohibitive costs of tracing the origins of their cotton, an article in The Economist this week reported on at least one company specializing in traceability has said that technology and know-how is available, should manufacturers choose to utilize it:

If a sportswear company like Nike or Adidas wants to know if any of the fabric in their socks or trainers is from Xinjiang, supplier of 20% of the world’s cotton, forensic science can help. Oritain, a firm based in New Zealand, says it can analyse sample swatches of cotton to determine whether particular elements—including zinc, potassium and rare-earth metals like cerium—are present in the same proportions as in cotton grown from the soil of the north-west region of China.

[…] In September, testifying before Congress, Stephen Lamar, head of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said there was not yet reliable technology to link cotton to Xinjiang with “reasonable” confidence. Oritain, the New Zealand firm, disputes that, saying that when it traces a swatch of cotton to the soil of Xinjiang, it does so with 95% confidence. The company can also confirm a brand’s contention that its cotton is from America. (Mr Lamar contends that under the anticipated legislation, 95% confidence would not be enough, and that without “foolproof accuracy”, products will be detained.) [Source]

It is unlikely that the suspension of imports from Xinjiang will push Beijing to change its behavior: experts have noted that the vast majority of products from the region are sold domestically, a reality that has also encouraged indifference among some manufacturers.

This week, The Guardian published a first hand account by Gulbahar Haitiwaji of her experience in one of Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps. Living in France, Haitiwaji was lured back to Xinjiang by officials under the pretense of signing retirement documents. The account does not mention forced labor, but describes harrowing accounts of two years of abuse and brainwashing in the name of “re-education” in a camp in Baijiantan:

How even to begin the story of what I went through in Xinjiang? How to tell my loved ones that I lived at the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, because of the status their uniforms gave them, could do as they wished with us, our bodies and souls? Of men and women whose brains had been thoroughly washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously enforcing orders, petty bureaucrats working under a system in which those who do not denounce others are themselves denounced, and those who do not punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we were enemies to be beaten down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.

In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.

We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticise our language. To insult our own people. Women like me, who emerged from the camps, are no longer who we once were. We are shadows; our souls are dead. I was made to believe that my loved ones, my husband and my daughter, were terrorists. I was so far away, so alone, so exhausted and alienated, that I almost ended up believing it. My husband, Kerim, my daughters Gulhumar and Gulnigar – I denounced your “crimes”. I begged forgiveness from the Communist party for atrocities that neither you nor I committed. I regret everything I said that dishonoured you. Today I am alive, and I want to proclaim the truth. I don’t know if you will accept me, I don’t know if you’ll forgive me.

How can I begin to tell you what happened here? [Source]


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