The U.S. Congress moved one step closer this week to making the United States the first country to ban the import of goods produced by Uyghur slave labor.
After more than a year of negotiations, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the House of Representatives unanimously late Tuesday and is poised to move quickly through the Senate and to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Once it becomes law, the bill will ban all imports from China’s Xinjiang region into the United States unless companies can show the U.S. government “clear and convincing evidence” their supply chains have not used the labor of ethnic Muslims enslaved in Chinese camps.
Beijing describes the camps as “re-education” facilities aimed at combating terrorism.
Democratic Representative Jim McGovern and Republican Senator Marco Rubio reached a compromise agreement on bills they had each passed in their respective chambers over the past year. The White House said Tuesday it would work closely with Congress to implement the measure.
“We agree with Congress that action can and must be taken to hold the People’s Republic of China accountable for genocide and human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement ahead of House passage of the bill.
The renewed push to hold China accountable for rights abuses comes ahead of the February 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The U.S. declared Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs genocide earlier this year and announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics last week. Earlier this month, an independent tribunal found Chinese senior leadership holds “primary responsibility” for acts of genocide against the Uyghurs.
China condemned House passage of the bill early Wednesday, describing the U.S. as hypocritical for not addressing forced labor within its own borders.
“China firmly opposes the interference by the U.S. Congress in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues. By cooking up lies and making troubles on such issues, some U.S. politicians are seeking to contain China and hold back China’s development through political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of human rights,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said in a press conference Wednesday.
Human rights groups praised the legislation and said it marked an important starting point for countries to address Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs.
“It’s a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is actually going to take action on this,” Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told VOA.
“It can also set a template for other governments to pick this up and say we’re going to pass our own forced labor bill. For example, if the U.S. stops allowing in forced labor goods, then [Chinese] leaders shift their exports to Europe or to Canada. So having that template for other governments to pick up and actually pass these kinds of bills, that helps the U.S. — similar to the diplomatic boycott. The U.S. was first; other governments followed.”
The original 2020 Senate version of the bill, co-sponsored by Rubio and Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, marked the first time a bill addressing Uyghur human rights was passed anywhere in the world.
U.S. companies Nike and Coca-Cola actively lobbied against earlier versions of the legislation. The Biden administration did come out in support of those versions, leading Rubio to claim the White House was holding back on his bill due to concerns from climate change envoy John Kerry. Irwin told VOA more than 40% of the world’s polysilicon supply comes from Xinjiang, a loss that would complicate the manufacture of solar cells and panels.
Rubio praised the compromise legislation in a statement Tuesday, saying, “The United States is so reliant on China that we have turned a blind eye to the slave labor that makes our clothes, our solar panels, and much more. That changes today. Our Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act will require businesses importing goods into the United States to prove that their supply chains are not tainted with slave labor. It is time to end our economic addiction to China.”
The legislation marks a rare point of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also praised the legislation, saying it marked an opportunity for the U.S. Congress to “continue to condemn and confront the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in the region and hold it accountable. 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,” Pelosi said in a statement ahead of the vote.