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Citing Uighur mistreatment, U.S. restricts imports from China's Xinjiang region

The bans will block goods, such as cotton and computer parts, made by certain Chinese producers in Xinjiang suspected to use Uighur forced labor.
Image: Uighur people learn practical skills at an education camp in Xinjiang, China.
Uighur men at an education camp in Xinjiang, China.Keir Simmons / NBC News

WASHINGTON – U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued orders on Monday that will block certain products from the Xinjiang region of China from entering the U.S. due to allegations of forced labor involved in their production.

The move comes as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on China for its persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority group.

More than 1 million Uighurs from the western Xinjiang province are believed to be held in internment camps where they are forced to study Marxism, renounce their religion, work in factories and face abuse, according to human rights groups and first-hand accounts from Uighurs. Beijing refers to the centers as “re-education camps” and says they provide vocational training and are necessary to fight extremism.

The bans, called “withhold release orders,” will block goods such as cotton, computer parts, hair products and apparel made by certain Chinese producers in Xinjiang suspected to use Uighur forced labor.

The order also bans all products made in a particular “re-education” camp in Xinjiang, the Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center, that Ken Cuccinelli, the official performing the duties of deputy Homeland Security Secretary, said practiced “modern day slavery,” likening it to a concentration camp.

“Communist Chinese China needs to close its concentration camps, set its captives free and end its state-sponsored forced labor program immediately,” Cuccinelli said. “Until they do, DHS will continue to block illicit goods and prosecute those who profit from them.”

Reached for comment Monday, a Chinese embassy spokesperson referred to comments made last week by foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

“Lately China has shown with facts and numbers that issues relating to Xinjiang are by no means about human rights, ethnicity or religion, but about counter-terrorism and anti-separatism,” Zhao said.

“What the U.S. truly cares about is never human rights. It is just using human rights as a cover to suppress Chinese companies, undermine stability in Xinjiang and vilify China's Xinjiang policy,” he added.

It’s unclear which American or international brands might be affected by the orders, but big name brands like Tommy Hilfiger were affected by a previous withhold release order issued against another Chinese company earlier this year.

One of the orders blocks goods from a Xinjiang factory that used to supply garments to Lacoste and was highlighted in a March report by the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a non-profit that tracks supply chains. Lacoste has since ceased sourcing from the company.

The specific products banned are as follows: Hair products made in the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park, apparel produced by Yili Zhuowan Garment Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business Co., Ltd, cotton produced and processed by Xinjiang Junggar Cotton and Linen Co. and computer parts made by Hefei Bitland Information Technology Co.

The order does not go as far as to initiate a region-wide ban on goods, particularly cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang.

Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan and Cuccinelli told reporters that a regional withhold release order is still being considered.

Morgan said CBP continues to “compile evidence on (tomato and cotton products) while determining if that evidence meets the legal standard for a withhold release order on a region wide basis."

Goods produced in Xinjiang are often sold to intermediary vendors who supply big name brands, so tracking the supply chain is a challenge.

The orders issued Monday are likely to heighten already strained tensions over trade between the U.S. and China.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, applauded the order but said he doubts it will affect Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang unless a large number of other nations impose similar boycotts.

“It will simply reinforce the Chinese Communist Party’s belief that the U.S. determined to smear China on every front in a futile attempt to thwart its rise,” he said.