The U.S. Senate has passed legislation that would ban the import of products from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in the latest move by Washington to penalize Beijing for forced labor and other abuses it says constitute genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs.
The bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was passed unanimously Wednesday, would create what is referred to as a “rebuttable presumption” that assumes goods made in the XUAR are made with forced labor and thus banned under the 1930 Tariff Act.
It places the onus on importing companies to prove that goods coming from the XUAR or other Chinese government labor schemes for Uyghurs are not made with forced labor in order to win government certification.
The bill also addresses human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims through targeted sanctions those deemed responsible for abuses committed in the XUAR.
The bill sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio with support from Senator Jeff Merkley was introduced in late January, a week after the U.S. State Department declared that China’s repression of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in the XUAR, including its use of internment camps and forced sterilizations, amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.
“The message to Beijing and any international company that profits from forced labor in Xinjiang is clear: no more,” Rubio said in a statement. “We will not turn a blind eye to the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] ongoing crimes against humanity, and we will not allow corporations a free pass to profit from those horrific abuses.”
The bill must now be passed by the House of Representatives after that chamber’s version of the legislation is harmonized with the Senate act, then signed by President Joe Biden before it becomes law.
Rubio previously wrote the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, the first piece of legislation on Uyghur human rights to be signed into law in the world.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2020 and passed about six months later, but was never brought to the floor by the Senate.
Uyghur rights and advocacy groups lauded the passage of the Senate bill.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney and vice chair of the U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), tweeted that the bill was “another milestone.”
“USCIRF applauds the Senate for passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act with unanimous consent and urges the House of Representatives to pass the bill as well,” he said, as tweeted by the independent bipartisan federal government commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide.
“Enacting the Uyghur Forced Labor bill will represent a major step forward in combating CCP-China’s ongoing genocide against Uyghurs, as forced labor is an integral part of the CCP’s oppression in Xinjiang,” Turkel was quoted as saying.
The Campaign for Uyghurs called the bill’s passage by senators “a significant step toward serious action on the issue of the Uyghur Genocide” and urged the House of Representatives to quickly pass it to guarantee swift action.
“This is an excellent start to addressing this genocide in a material way,” said the organization’s executive director, Rushan Abbas, in a statement.
“I am hopeful that by taking this action other nations will be inspired to issue similar legislation, showing international solidarity against the CCP’s campaign of terror and destruction,” she said. “We must demand that our supply lines not be tainted by forced labor, modern day slavery.”
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, called the vote “historic,” and said that “Uyghurs around the world are deeply grateful.”
When asked about the Senate's passage of the bill at a Foreign Ministry news conference in Beijing on Thursday, spokesman Zhao Lijian said the “accusation of ‘forced labor’ was a sheer lie.”
“The true intention of the U.S. moves to hype up this issue is to undermine Xinjiang’s prosperity and stability, and deprive the people in Xinjiang of the right to subsistence, employment and development,” he said.
“What the U.S. has done amounts to forced unemployment and forced poverty. It fully reveals the sinister intention of the US to use Xinjiang to contain China.”
'A clear and unequivocal demand'
The Senate’s passage of the bill follows a series of measures the Biden administration and its predecessor have taken to punish China for its brutal treatment of the Uyghurs, including the detention of about 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps.
After the genocide designation was announced in January, Washington tightened scrutiny and import controls on Chinese firms that manufacture solar-panel material, wigs, electronics, tomatoes, and cotton with suspected forced Uyghur labor.
On Tuesday, the U.S. expanded its warning about doing business in XUAR, known s the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken citing China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and the growing evidence of its use of forced labor there.”
The U.S. Commerce Department has blacklisted dozens of Chinese government or commercial entities that it says were involved in human rights abuses, last week adding another 14 companies to its Entity List.
Some democratic governments, including the U.S., are considering boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing over the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in the XUAR, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
During a speech on Wednesday at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, former Vice President Mike Pence urged the Biden administration to demand that the 2022 Winter Olympic in Beijing be moved unless the country stops its abuses against the Uyghurs and other minority Muslim group in the XUAR and provides transparency on the origins of the coronavirus.
“President Biden should make a clear and unequivocal demand that the 2022 Winter Olympics be moved from Beijing unless China comes clean on the origins of COVID-19 and immediately ends persecution of the Uyghur people,” Pence said, referring to the highly contagious respiratory virus that was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
“The Olympics should only take place in countries that respect fundamental human rights and the well-being of mankind,” he said.