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Opinion Congress needs to act on Xi Jinping’s genocide now

Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a news conference. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

This week, a private U.K.-based investigative panel released what it says are classified Chinese government documents that appear to show how Chinese President Xi Jinping personally laid the groundwork for the systematic forced assimilation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It’s the most damning proof to date of the ongoing Uyghur genocide. So why can’t Congress pass a simple bill to stop the products connected to that genocide from ending up in U.S. homes and businesses?

The documents, which likely come from the same tranche of leaked Chinese Communist Party communications revealed by the New York Times over two years ago, add to the already abundant evidence that the Chinese government’s mass internment, mass forced labor, forced population control, family destruction and cultural erasure of the Uyghurs fit the United Nation’s definition of genocide as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.”

Yet the Democrat-led Congress can’t seem to get the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed the Senate unanimously in July, to President Biden’s desk. Pointing to procedural issues and promises of future action, Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate can’t seem to agree on a strategy to pass the bill through both chambers, despite publicly claiming they support it.

On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, pushed to add it as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass piece of legislation. Senate Democrats objected under a procedural rule that bars amendments that affect appropriations. Rubio called that a dodge.

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“This is about the fact that they don’t want this bill to pass over at the House,” Rubio said on the Senate floor, referring directly to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Rubio also said U.S. corporations that profit from forced labor in China, such as Apple and Nike, have been lobbying against the bill, which is true. On Thursday, Pelosi denied Rubio’s accusations of stalling and promised her chamber would pass the House’s version of the legislation, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), which the House passed last year 406 to 3. In an interview, McGovern told me his bill will be voted on and likely passed again in the House next week.

But if and when that happens, that won’t be the end. The two chambers will still have passed two different versions of the bill, with no firm plan for how to reconcile them.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials have been quietly telling lawmakers to slow down. Administration sources confirmed that in an October call between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the other co-sponsor, Sherman made it clear that the administration prefers a more targeted and deliberative approach to determining which goods are the products of forced labor. She also told Merkley that getting allied buy-in was critical and more effective than unilateral action.

“To be clear, the Department of State is not opposing this amendment,” a State Department spokesman told me. “We share the Congress’ concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang.”

In other words, while the administration supports the legislation in public, they are asking Democrats to essentially water it down in private. Sherman’s specific criticism relates to a part of the bill that would require a presumption that all products coming from Xinjiang are tainted by forced labor unless the importer can prove otherwise. This happens to be the exact provision corporations are also objecting to. Maybe it’s a coincidence.

“It isn’t partisan or in any way controversial for the U.S. to be unequivocally, resoundingly opposed to genocide and slave labor,” Merkley told me. “The Senate passed this legislation in July, and it’s time to get it over the finish line.”

There is a legitimate concern that supply chains for everything from solar panels to sneakers could be affected by the bill. But our dependency on products from an area where genocide is occurring is the root of the problem. Passing the bill now would send industry a clear signal to speed up what they are already doing, which is to stop doing business in areas riddled with forced labor. Also, forced labor products from China put U.S. manufacturers at a severe disadvantage.

“We must shine a light on the inhumane practice of forced labor, hold the perpetrators accountable and stop this exploitation,” Pelosi said while passing the bill last year. “And we must send a clear message to Beijing: These abuses must end now.”

Another year has gone and the bill still lingers. Pelosi has been a champion for human rights in China for decades, but the fight is not over and the ball is in her court. Overall, it’s up to both parties and both chambers to act to stop a genocide now. There’s no good reason to delay.

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