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U.S. Bans Xinjiang Cotton Products, Tomatoes Over Forced Labor

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 1/14/2021 Julia Fanzeres and Henry Ren
a herd of sheep walking across snow covered ground: Workers remove by hand impurities such as leaves from cotton fibers on October 27, 2005 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region city Turpan, China. © Photographer: Chien-min Chung/Getty Images Workers remove by hand impurities such as leaves from cotton fibers on October 27, 2005 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region city Turpan, China.

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will bar entry of all cotton products and tomatoes from China’s Xinjiang region, a sweeping move that prompted protests from Beijing and fresh vows to defend its companies.

The U.S. ban is the latest in a series of actions where the U.S. is raising pressure on China over alleged ill-treatment of its ethnic Uighur Muslim minority. The U.S. says the Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in “re-education” camps, allegations that Beijing denies.

The goods to be held at U.S. ports of entry include apparel, textiles, tomato seeds, canned tomatoes, and tomato sauce, Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said. The so-called withhold-release order will also apply to products manufactured in other countries that use cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, he said.

“Forced labor is a form of modern slavery,” Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli said on a call with reporters Wednesday. “‘Made in China’ doesn’t just indicate country of origin -- it’s a warning label.”

China criticized the U.S. decision Thursday, with a government spokesman saying it “violated trade rules, market economy principles, damaged global industrial supply chains and damaged the interests of companies and consumers” of all countries.

“The so-called forced labor is manufactured and fabricated by certain Western institutions and people, including the U.S.,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijiian said in Beijing. “The purpose is to crack down on relevant Chinese parties and companies and curb China’s development. The U.S. side created this lie and then took actions based on this lie.”

For more background on the Uighurs, read this QuickTake

The action is a blow for the U.S. clothing industry, given that one-fifth of the world’s cotton comes from the region. The U.S. imported $9 billion of cotton products in the past year and $10 million of tomatoes from China, said Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner in the office of trade at CBP.

In a statement, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and U.S. Fashion Industry Association asked the CBP to share the evidence and thresholds used to arrive at its findings. They also requested that the agency “share enforcement actions so that industry can further inform their due diligence and amplify and expand CBP’s enforcement efforts.”

The ban is “very significant,” AAFA President and CEO Steve Lamar said in an emailed response to questions. “All companies that use cotton in their supply chains need to take notice.” The association represents more than 590 firms.


Video: U.S. needs to work with China while keeping it in check: U.S. Chamber of Commerce (CNBC)

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In September, CBP said it planned WROs covering all cotton, textile and tomato products from the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region. CBP has already issued WROs against three Xinjiang-based hair-product and garment producers in 2020.

Read more: U.S. Raises China Pressure With More Bans Planned

Xinjiang is China -- and Asia’s -- largest tomato production and processing region, generating about 70% of the country’s total shipments of the commodity. Tomatoes are also the largest export commodity for the region, with an annual value of more than $500 million. COFCO Tunhe, Chalkis Health Industry Co. and Xinjiang Tianye dominate the tomato industry in the region with a 60% market share.

China is the world’s top exporter of tomato paste, accounting for nearly 40% of the global trade, according to local media reports. Xinjiang exported more than 80% of its tomato paste to Russia and Italy in the first 8 months of 2019.

“China strongly urges relevant countries to immediately stop this wrongdoing,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told a regular briefing Thursday. “We will take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.”

‘Genocide’

In December, the U.S.-based Center for Global Policy published a report alleging new evidence from Chinese government documents and media reports of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang being forced to pick cotton by hand through coercive state-mandated labor.

President-elect Joe Biden has labeled China’s mass detention and re-education program for Xinjiang’s Uighur minority as “genocide” and called for an international effort to make a united stand against the campaign.

In addition to ensuring targeted enforcement, the incoming administration should consider a “whole-of-world” approach to align the U.S.’s allies on ending forced labor in Xinjiang, the AAFA’s Lamar said.

“It is important that this is be a coordinated effort to ensure that products made with forced labor are not sent into China for domestic consumption or used elsewhere in the world,” he said.

(Updates throughout with comments from China’s government.)

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