U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday it will detain all cotton and tomato products produced in China’s Xinjiang province.
The Withhold Release Order (WRO) issued by CBP is based on information that “reasonably indicates” the use of forced labor within China’s so-called “re-education” camps. CBP also claims China is oppressing its Muslim population in that region.
“The goal isn’t just to interdict shipments … that’s actually the fallback plan,” Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday. “The goal of the WRO is that they stop and that the shipments never arrive — the ultimate goal is that China abandons these horrific practices.”
This is the fourth WRO that CBP has issued in 2021 and the second on products originating in Xinjiang. China’s Xinjiang province accounted for eight of the 13 WROs that CBP issued in 2020 — all stemming from allegations of forced labor.
CBP officials and human rights experts estimate that somewhere between 1 million to 3 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others are being detained in what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dubbed “internment camps” throughout China’s Xinjiang province.
There are about 1,300 of these facilities scattered throughout the region and they’ve allegedly forced detainees to work without compensation in nearby factories, according to those same officials.
Evidence from Chinese government documents and media reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang are forced to pick cotton by hand via state-mandated labor, according to a report by the Center for Global Policy published last month. The Chinese government strongly denies all claims of forced labor in Xinjiang.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Made in China does not just indicate a country of origin,” said Cuccinelli. “It’s a warning label.”
Cotton is Xinjiang’s largest export; cotton exports from China are approximately a $9 billion industry. Last month, CBP issued a WRO on Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which had accounted for 17% of those cotton exports.
CBP has not yet quantified Xinjiang’s tomato export output, but China’s overall output of tomatoes is a $10 million industry, according to export data from 2019.
CBP officials emphasized on the call Wednesday that most of the onus falls on importers and consumers — urging them to diligently research their supply chains prior to purchasing items from China in general.
“If you’re buying apparel and it’s considerably lower than the fair market value everywhere else, there’s a reason for that,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan. “Take a few minutes, understand where it’s coming from — is it coming from this region?”
Human rights coalitions have praised the action taken from the U.S. against Beijing’s alleged abuses.
“CBP’s action is a high-decibel wakeup call to any apparel brand that continues to deny the prevalence and problem of forced-labor produced cotton from the Uyghur region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, a member of the coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour. “The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over.”
Scrutiny against China’s actions in Xinjiang has mounted in recent months over allegations of forced sterilization of their Uighur population that surfaced last summer.
The scrutiny made its way to social media last week when Twitter removed a controversial tweet by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. In the tweet, the embassy shared an unsubstantiated report on population growth in Xinjiang and wrote that Muslim women in the province were “no longer baby-making machines,” adding that the decrease in population growth had led to a drop in terrorism.
“After further review, we have taken action on this tweet for violating our rules against dehumanization,” a Twitter spokesperson said.