Senate passes Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, in major step toward holding China accountable for repression in Xinjiang

The Senate on Thursday approved a bipartisan measure that would ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region unless the importer can prove they were not made with forced labor, in a major step toward holding China accountable for its repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was passed by the House earlier this week and now heads to President Biden’s desk. The White House indicated Tuesday that Biden will sign it into law.

The legislation applies to “all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part” in Xinjiang, a sprawling region in China’s far west where, beginning in 2017, the Chinese government has carried out a mass “reeducation” campaign against Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups.

Under the 1930 Tariff Act, it is illegal to import into the United States any goods made in whole or in part by forced labor. The new legislation would prohibit all imports from Xinjiang “unless U.S. Customs and Border Protection certifies by clear and convincing evidence that goods were not produced with forced labor.”

It follows a move earlier this year by the Trump administration to issue a sweeping ban on imports of cotton or tomato products from Xinjiang — although enforcement of those sanctions is proving challenging.

Scholars estimate more than 1 million people in Xinjiang were detained in camps, with some released, some transferred to prison and others pressured to work in factories.

In its annual human rights report released in March, the Biden administration ­declared China’s treatment of ­the Uyghurs a genocide, formalizing its dire assessment of Beijing’s campaign of mass ­detention and sterilization of ­minority groups in Xinjiang.

China’s government has repeatedly denied any forced labor took place in Xinjiang, although it acknowledges there were “vocational training programs” for residents that officials considered at risk for separatism or religious extremism.

Reasons for detention could include such supposed infractions as wearing a headscarf or long beard, having more than two children or traveling overseas for vacation.

Versions of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act had earlier passed the House and the Senate, and lawmakers in both chambers reached agreement on the final text this week.

The legislation was spearheaded by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Reps. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) and Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). All four are members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China; Merkley and McGovern are the group’s co-chairs.

The Senate also on Thursday confirmed R. Nicholas Burns as U.S. ambassador to China. Burns is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has served as ambassador to NATO and to Greece and worked at the State Department as undersecretary of state for political affairs.

In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Rubio said that goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang have been imported “at an alarming, horrific rate.” The legislation, he said, “will help tremendously in stopping that from happening.”

“Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains,” Rubio said. “And, frankly, they should have no concerns about this law. For those who have not done that, they’ll no longer be able to continue to make Americans — every one of us, frankly — unwitting accomplices in the atrocities, in the genocide that’s being committed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Merkley said in a statement that the measure “ensures that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China’s horrific human rights abuses.”

“As the Chinese government tries to whitewash their genocide and claim a propaganda victory with the upcoming Olympics, this legislation sends a powerful, bipartisan message that the United States will not turn a blind eye,” he said.

The Trump administration in January imposed a ban on cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang. The region accounts for almost a fifth of global cotton production, according to official figures and calculations by The Washington Post. But U.K. researchers said in a report last month that there is a high likelihood that banned Xinjiang cotton is still making it to U.S. shelves, because it is shipped to third countries for clothing manufacturing.

The Biden administration in July also banned the import of solar panels and other goods made with materials produced by Hoshine Silicon, a Chinese company that it accused of using forced laborers from Xinjiang. Hoshine is the world’s largest producer of metallurgical-grade silicon, a key raw material in solar panels.

It remains unclear when Biden will sign the legislation. In a statement Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden welcomes the bipartisan measure and “will work closely with Congress to implement this bill to ensure global supply chains are free of forced labor, while simultaneously working to on-shore and third-shore key supply chains, including semiconductors and clean energy.”

“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,” Psaki said.

Eva Dou, Lily Kuo, John Hudson, Jeanne Whalen and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.