China decries US 'lie' after House votes to ban Xinjiang imports

Beijing says Washington seeking to oppress region's businesses in move opposed by US lobby group

China accused the US of using the claims of forced labour to restrict and oppress Xinjiang businesses. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/WASHINGTON • China yesterday hit back at a US move to ban imports from the north-western Xinjiang region over claims of forced labour, bemoaning a "fabricated lie" that it says is intended to hurt Chinese business.

The US House of Representatives had on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to ban Xinjiang imports, vowing to stop what lawmakers say is systematic forced labour by the Uighur ethnic minority community in the region.

Despite opposition by US businesses, the Act passed 406-3 in a sign of growing outrage over Xinjiang, where activists say more than a million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking people have been incarcerated in camps.

"Tragically, the products of the forced labour often end up here in American stores and homes," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote. "We must send a clear message to Beijing: These abuses must end now."

Beijing reacted angrily over the move, saying that Washington was "maliciously slandering the human rights situation in China's Xinjiang".

"China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition, and had already made stern representations to the US," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing.

"Xinjiang affairs are purely China's internal affairs. The US had no right to interfere. The so-called forced labour issue is a completely fabricated lie by certain Western organisations and individuals."

The Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act still needs to be passed by the Senate, which may have limited time before the Nov 3 election.

The United States already bans products made through slavery, but the Act would put a blanket ban on Xinjiang products as it says forced labour is inextricably linked to the region's economy.

"We know forced labour is widespread and systematic and exists both within and outside the mass internment camps," said Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan Act.

"These facts are confirmed by the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery and official leaked documents from the Chinese government," he said.

Republican Representative Chris Smith said: "We cannot be silent. We must demand an end to these barbaric practices and accountability from the Chinese government."

Xinjiang is a global hub for cotton, with one labour group's study estimating that 20 per cent of the US' imported garments contain at least some yarn from the region.

The Act passed despite criticism from the US Chamber of Commerce, the country's premier business lobby, which argued that the law would prohibit legitimate commerce rather than find ways to root out products from forced labour.

After the Act was introduced, the State Department issued an advisory that it said would educate US firms in Xinjiang, and the US Customs and Border Protection agency said it was banning specific products traced to forced labour in the region.

Mr Wang accused the US of using the claims of forced labour to "restrict and oppress Xinjiang businesses".

Swedish clothing giant H&M said earlier this month that it was ending its relationship with a Chinese yarn producer over the labour accusations.

Activists and witnesses say that China is seeking to forcibly homogenise the Uighur population in re-education camps, including by restricting the practice of Islam.

Beijing last week published a White Paper staunchly defending its policy in Xinjiang, where it says training programmes, work schemes and better education mean life has improved.

It has defended the training centres as necessary to stamp out extremism.

But US Homeland Security officials have described the centre as facilities run like a "concentration camp".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2020, with the headline China decries US 'lie' after House votes to ban Xinjiang imports. Subscribe