Was your T-shirt made using forced labor? A new U.S. law takes aim at ‘made in Xinjiang’ – Grid News

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Was your T-shirt made using forced labor? A new U.S. law takes aim at ‘made in Xinjiang’

What do cotton T-shirts, cancer medications and solar panels have in common? All are products caught in a growing effort by U.S. lawmakers to crack down on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. A new law is taking aim at products with any raw materials that can be traced to Xinjiang. That amounts to billions of dollars in goods that have wound up in American homes.

For many human rights advocates, China’s repression of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang has risen to the top of a long list of concerns. Researchers have documented forced labor not only in Xinjiang’s detention camps, where more than a million Uyghurs are estimated to have been imprisoned, but also outside the camps, where Uyghurs and other minorities have been transferred to factory jobs by the government. The human rights violations in Xinjiang, which independent organizations have labeled crimes against humanity and genocidal, were instrumental in leading to the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games. Now, American policymakers are gearing up to deliver a fresh rebuke of the Chinese government for its policies in Xinjiang, and corporations for their alleged complicity.


Hear more from Lili Pike about this story:


Passed in December by a rare bipartisan vote in Congress, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act sets an effective import ban on all goods made fully or partly in Xinjiang. Under the law, it is assumed that all Xinjiang production involves forced labor. The onus will be on the importer to prove otherwise.

“It is good to have this kind of sweeping presumption that products made in that region are made with forced labor,” said Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University. “Given the research I’ve done, and so many other scholars have done now, and journalists, it’s clear that the program of forced labor is so pervasive in Xinjiang as to affect practically every company and every industry in the region.”

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Because the law’s presumption is so sweeping, its effect on U.S. businesses could be as well. Grid reviewed Chinese customs data and found that Xinjiang exported nearly $20 billion in goods to countries around the world in 2021, shedding light on the region’s links to key global supply chains.

Xinjiang supplies a large share of the world’s cotton, tomatoes, and silicon used in solar panels. U.S. lawmakers imposed restrictions on these goods last year, but the new law will step up enforcement and expand the net to include all goods that originate in Xinjiang.


The new law goes into effect in June, and many American companies are already scrambling to trace their supply chains — and in many cases adjusting or rethinking completely how their products come to market. Given the difficulty of proving that Xinjiang-based companies aren’t engaged in forced labor, experts told Grid that most companies will have to find a way to source from outside of Xinjiang.

Beyond the practical and logistical difficulties, U.S. business advocates said that American companies feel caught between superpowers. “They’re between a rock and a hard place, because China is ratcheting up pressure on them to not say anything or to speak up on China’s behalf,” said Doug Barry, senior director of communications at the U.S.-China Business Council. “And then the U.S. government is suggesting that they leave or consider leaving, or that they’re somehow unpatriotic because they’re not taking a public stand.”

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For Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer and a Yale Law School Fellow, the reckoning over corporate entanglement in Xinjiang is long overdue.

“This momentum took years to build up,” said Asat, whose brother, Ekpar, is currently being held in a detention camp in Xinjiang. “I think we have reached a pivotal moment in history concerning global trade supply chain and human rights due diligence, especially concerning powerful countries like China.”

Supply chain: From Xinjiang to the U.S.

For a region more than a thousand miles from China’s coastal ports, Xinjiang is surprisingly well-connected to global commerce.

Direct trade between Xinjiang and the U.S. amounted to $1 billion over the past five years — made up largely of electric-generating sets, lamps and lights, and toys. Last year, the No. 2 export was heterocyclic compounds, an ingredient used in antiviral, cancer and many other drugs.

In the context of global trade, these direct exports are relatively low in volume; the far greater impact of the new law — on supply chains and American store shelves alike — will be felt in U.S. companies’ indirect connections to Xinjiang.

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Xinjiang products and raw materials often reach the U.S. via other paths: through other parts of China and third-party countries. These are the next links in the supply chains that originate in Xinjiang, and sites for the next stages of refining or manufacturing.

It’s hard to track the flow within China, but Chinese customs data shows billions of dollars of goods are shipped annually from Xinjiang to outside manufacturing hubs. The top global exports from Xinjiang in the last two years were common consumer goods and raw materials including apparel, plastics, electrical equipment and footwear, and the top destinations for these goods were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. But the flow of goods doesn’t necessarily end there; the next leg of the journey can bring the products to the United States and other major markets.

A prime example of Xinjiang’s long and winding connection to global markets is cotton. Xinjiang is a dominant producer, supplying 85 percent of China’s cotton and 20 percent of the world total. Customs data reviewed by Grid showed that Xinjiang directly exported only $12 million in 2021, while China exported $13 billion, which suggests that Xinjiang cotton is traded internally in China before being shipped out.

A report published in November by researchers from Sheffield Hallam University shows how cotton from Xinjiang moves through this supply chain to global retailers. They found that 103 major fashion brands may be linked through third-party country factories to Chinese fabric companies with suppliers in Xinjiang, most of which had used forced labor. Companies that may be connected to Xinjiang in this way include global brands such as Uniqlo and Tommy Hilfiger.

The researchers also showed how specific articles of clothing from international brands have a particularly high likelihood of containing cotton from Xinjiang. Take as an example a shipment of pants sent to Banana Republic in San Francisco in January 2021. The pants were sewn in a Sri Lankan factory, from fabric that researchers traced to Jiangsu Lianfa, a major Chinese fabric supplier. Company records showed that a major source of Jiangsu Lianfa’s yarn is a subsidiary in Xinjiang. The researchers reviewed practices at the subsidiary and reported that it used forced labor.


The report did not accuse the international brands of intentionally using forced labor or obscuring their supply chains, but the researchers wrote that the effect was essentially the “laundering” of Xinjiang cotton.

The same phenomenon is common in the solar industry supply chain, which follows a similar route — from Xinjiang to Southeast Asia to major solar energy consumers like the United States. Xinjiang is the source for 45 percent of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon, the key ingredient in solar panels. Another Sheffield Hallam report, published in May 2021, showed how a handful of Chinese polysilicon titans have used forced labor in their supply chains — and that these supply chains are linked to many of the top U.S. solar-panel installers.

These industries have been under scrutiny since the U.S. introduced import bans targeting them over the past year. But under the new law, all U.S. importers will be responsible for understanding the details in these distant branches of their supply chains. “I think we’re going to see a lot of other industries taken by surprise when it’s discovered that their supply chain can be traced back to Xinjiang,” said Murphy. “I think every company in every sector needs to be looking into this.”

The Xinjiang exit

To understand the potential impact of the new law, Grid looked at the fallout from the earlier, less sweeping round of U.S. restrictions on Xinjiang goods.

Navigating the rules has been a challenge for many companies. Richard Mojica, a lawyer at Miller & Chevalier who has worked on Xinjiang-related cases, said that most companies aren’t accustomed to collecting the kind of detailed information required to prove they aren’t sourcing from Xinjiang or from certain restricted organizations there. It can also be difficult for U.S. firms to get mid-chain suppliers to release information on those at the source; the middlemen are often concerned about being cut out of the transaction.

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“In the immediate term, it has caused a lot of disruption in the industries because a bunch of stuff is getting detained at the border,” said Mojica. “And the chances of successfully appealing are moderate.”

Technically, companies can continue to import Xinjiang-made products if they prove that no forced labor was involved. But several experts told Grid that doing so is nearly impossible.

“It’s not clear that it’s possible for a third-party auditor to be able to go in [to Xinjiang] and say with any certainty that there’s no forced labor involved,” said Anna Ashton, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Given these challenges, U.S. companies have thus far tended to seek alternatives to Xinjiang rather than attempt to defend their suppliers’ business records. In one example, Chinese solar companies are now largely sourcing polysilicon from outside of Xinjiang for their U.S. customers, Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Pol Lezcano told Grid. And many apparel companies told the Sheffield Hallam University researchers they were no longer operating or sourcing from Xinjiang.

For companies with large markets in China itself, complying with the new law isn’t just a logistical, supply chain problem; it’s also a major business risk. Some U.S. companies have decided that they would no longer source materials from Xinjiang, only to meet the ire of the Chinese government and consumers. Last year, Nike and H&M faced online backlash and boycotts in China after announcing they wouldn’t use materials from Xinjiang. Chinese sportswear brands’ sales surged in the aftermath as nationalist social media figures encouraged customers to buy local.

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For Barry, of the U.S.-China Business Council, this represents a worrying trend that may get worse for all U.S. firms operating in China. “It’s more and more difficult for U.S. companies of all stripes to do business there.” he said. “That will lead to much less investment, much less business between the two largest economies in the world.”

But according to Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, co-author of the new U.S. law, corporations have been far too complacent in China for far too long. “A lot of U.S. companies, a lot of international companies have taken this attitude of ‘see no evil, hear no evil,’ you know, ‘No one is showing us the forced labor, so we’re off the hook,’” he said. “Well, the bottom line is, that’s not good enough. They know what’s going on, but they choose to continue to do business in that region because it helps their profits. And, quite frankly, they’re complicit in this terrible human rights atrocity.”

Forced labor in Xinjiang: Can a law make a difference?

There is no doubt that the new law will change the way U.S. companies operate their supply chains in China; in some ways, it is already having that effect. Less clear is whether these changes will make a mark on Chinese policies in Xinjiang.

For one thing, questions remain about how the law will be implemented and enforced. It’s unlikely that companies across all sectors will be held to account immediately, Mojica told Grid. Given the wide scope of the law, he said, implementation is “going to be gradual and calculated.”

Perhaps more important, those goods and raw materials from Xinjiang are likely to find other customers. That’s always a possibility when one country — even one as powerful as the U.S. — imposes sanctions. And in at least one sector, it’s already happening.

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Polysilicon — that key ingredient in solar panels — is in high global demand, as countries seek to wean their economies off coal and other old sources of energy. “U.S. sanctions will have no economic repercussion on Xinjiang-based polysilicon manufacturers,” said Bloomberg’s Lezcano, “because there’s plenty of polysilicon demand that comes from outside the U.S.”

Overall, Xinjiang’s top trading partners are in Central Asia — countries that aren’t known for their sensitivity to human rights. And even as exports to the U.S. fell last year, overall exports from Xinjiang rose to a five-year high of nearly $20 billion.

For the new sanctions to have a stronger effect, the U.S. will need allies, said the Asia Society’s Ashton: “Whatever we do, as the United States it will be much more effective if we’re ultimately doing it in concert with, or at least parallel to, similar actions from our allies and partners.” The EU is currently considering passing similar legislation.

Critics of the law in the U.S. business community said that it could have negative consequences for the very people it is trying to help — the Uyghurs — by weakening Xinjiang’s economy, thereby impacting their livelihoods. In response, McGovern notes that the Uyghur community itself has been the most vocal proponent of the legislation: “The idea that we’re going to continue to turn a blind eye to forced labor and human rights atrocities, we’re going to turn a blind eye to a genocide because at the end of the day, the status quo was somehow good for the people who were the victims — I don’t buy that argument.”

Murphy, the human rights professor, believes the law could lead to change on the ground. “I think that people tend to think that this is an intractable issue, that there’s nothing that can convince the Chinese government to change their position toward the Uyghurs, but in the last five years, we have seen the Chinese government change their tactics,” she said. “Some companies have seen massive reductions in their profits. Some companies … in mainland China have stopped using the labor transfer program.”

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For Asat, the Uyghur human rights lawyer, the new law is personal. Her brother has been held since 2016 in the same system of detention camps that has conscripted Uyghurs into forced labor. She believes that by cutting off U.S. business in the region, the law could pressure the Chinese government to end that system.

“What we’re seeing is that the willing perpetrators are emboldened by impunity and the lack of accountability in their pursuit of profit,” she said. “And now, I think this bill in particular shifts the burden on them.”

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.

  • Matt Stiles
    Matt Stiles

    Senior Data Visualization Reporter

    Matt Stiles is the senior data visualization reporter for Grid.