BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. legislation to ban imports from China’s western Xinjiang region passed the U.S. House of Representatives this week and could have ramifications for goods from textiles to solar panel materials.
The House passed the act on concerns over forced labour in Xinjiang, in Washington’s continued pushback against alleged abuses of the Uyghur Muslim minority by Beijing. Human rights organisations have accused China of exploiting forced labour from Uyghurs and other minority groups, as well as setting up a system of detention camps. China has repeatedly denied the accusations and said its measures in Xinjiang are necessary to fight terrorism.
WHAT DOES THE ACT SAY?
Under the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act”, goods from Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west about the size of Mongolia and with a population of some 25 million, would be presumed to be made using forced labour, and so banned from ports of entry into the United States. Exceptions to the ban could be granted if “clear and convincing evidence” was provided that the goods were not made using any forced labour. Some goods – like cotton, tomatoes, and polysilicon, a material used in solar panel manufacturing – would be designated “high priority” for enforcement action.
Efforts to contravene the import ban would be met with sanctions. To become law, the act must also pass the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden.
HOW MUCH TRADE WOULD BE AFFECTED?
Xinjiang’s overall exports fell 12.2% to $15.8 billion last year, from 2019, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to customs data from the region. But shipments to the United States surged 116% in 2020 to $653.5 million even as it stepped up its rhetoric on alleged human rights abuses. Last year, Xinjiang’s exports to the United States accounted for about 4% of the region’s outbound shipments by value, up from less than 2% in 2019. The region’s customs data did not give a breakdown of what products were shipped to U.S. customers.
Overall, electronics products led Xinjiang’s exports in 2020 by value, accounting for nearly a third of the region’s outbound shipments. That was followed by clothing and accessories, footwear and cultural products. Lower down the list was farm produce, which accounted for about 5% of Xinjiang’s exports, with a total value of $867.3 million.
Exports of textile yarns, fabrics and related products reached $774.5 million, or almost 5% of the region’s overall outbound shipments.
POLYSILICON, COTTON AND TOMATOES
Analysts estimate that 45% of the world’s solar panel-grade polysilicon comes from Xinjiang – an increasingly important material as countries ramp up their renewable energy capacity. The Biden administration has already banned imports from Chinese-based Hoshine Silicon Industry Co but stopped short of imposing a ban on all imports from the region. Agricultural products are also in focus, after allegations from some researchers and foreign lawmakers that Xinjiang authorities use coercive labour programmes to meet seasonal cotton-picking needs.
The Trump administration announced an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from the region in January. U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimated in January that about $9 billion of cotton products and $10 million worth of tomato products were imported from China into the United States in the preceding year.
WHAT HAS CHINA’S RESPONSE BEEN?
China strongly denies the claims made in the act and says all labour in Xinjiang is consensual and contract-based. “This is in essence political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of human rights,” Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Thursday. “The U.S.’s intention is to undermine Xinjiang’s prosperity, stability and ethnic solidarity, and contain China’s development.”