The White House says President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday a bill that bans the import of good produced by Uyghur slave labor.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which got final Congressional approval last week after a year of negotiations, bans 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.
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 has condemned the bill, 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 last week.
Human rights groups have 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.”
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 Senator Marco 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 last 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.