US takes new action on some Chinese exports, citing forced labor

A cotton distributor based in Xinjiang province has been hit with sanctions.

December 2, 2020, 7:36 PM

The Trump administration implemented new economic pressure on China over alleged human rights abuses Wednesday -- banning imports from a cotton distributor based in Xinjiang province.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Trade announced a withhold release order against cotton products made by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps based on information that "reasonably indicates" the use of forced labor, including convict labor.

"Be careful buying gifts this holiday season," said DHS acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli. "'Made in China' is not just a country of origin, it is a warning label."

Cotton is Xinjiang's largest export and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps accounts for 17% of those exports -- making this potentially the most impactful of the six past withhold release orders CBP has issued over the past month.

"You're looking at potentially billions of dollars," Cuccinelli said at a press conference Wednesday.

Department of Homeland Security acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on "Threats to the Homeland" Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Joshua Roberts/Pool via AP

The six enforcement actions that CBP announced in the past three months cite goods made by forced labor from China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

"China's systemic abuse of forced labor in the Xinjiang Region should disturb every American business and consumer," said CBP acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan. "Forced labor is a human rights violation that hurts vulnerable workers and introduces unfair competition into global supply chains. CBP will continue taking decisive action to prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the United States."

CBP officials 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.

ABC News has reached out to XPCC for comment.

The flags of China, the United States and Chinese Communist Party are displayed in a flag stall at the Yiwu Wholesale Market in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China, May 10, 2019.
Aly Song/Reuters, File

CBP officials would not disclose whether they've identified American companies that used this company's cotton, but urged both American and international companies to investigate their own ties to the Xinjiang region.

"We believe the bigger impact is the cooperative impact by American and international businesses who care about their reputations and who care about the quality of their products to police their own supply chains and to extricate themselves from doing business with XPCC and in the Xinjiang region more generally," said Morgan.

However, Morgan added that any company, "American or otherwise," caught engaging in trade with suspicious actors in Xinjiang could be subject to similar penalties.

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