Already, it’s illegal in the United States to import goods made by forced labor. The problem is that it happens anyway. The issue isn’t precisely that companies are looking the other way, though some surely are, but that when they look the right way they don’t see anything. State surveillance in Xinjiang is so pervasive that witnesses are unlikely to tell the truth even when they haven’t been actively intimidated out of speaking. Forced labor is deeply integrated in the local economy, and sometimes mixed with unforced labor. This is convenient for U.S. manufacturers who can boast of audits coming out clean — even as they’re aware that little produced in the region is actually untainted.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed the House of Representatives 403 to 6 this fall and whose fate now lies with the Senate, would flip the burden of proof to line up with reality. Firms would have to demonstrate that their imports from Xinjiang are not made with forced labor. Companies whose products depend on inputs such as cotton, tomatoes and polysilicon, reportedly including Coca-Cola and Nike, are lobbying the Senate to dilute the measure: Providing proof of the absence of forced labor in a region riddled with it will prove costly in some cases and impossible in most others, they argue. These corporations may simply cease sourcing from Xinjiang altogether. But would that be such a bad thing? At best, the Chinese regime will feel the pain in time and alter its practices, especially if allied countries follow suit. At worst, this country’s companies won’t be complicit in crimes against humanity.
Trickier is a provision expanding the ban to cover goods produced in factories elsewhere in China involved in so-called poverty alleviation and pairing-assistance programs. These programs relocate Uighurs en masse to employ them under highly questionable conditions, including in factories in the supply chains of U.S. brands that don’t source from Xinjiang. Apple, which has also lobbied on the bill, has pushed for clarity on which entities qualify; the concern may be that firms unsure which of their suppliers meet the criteria will flee the Chinese market altogether. Lawmakers in the Senate should pass the bill, and in their drafting they should strive to provide guidance on this score without providing loopholes — putting the pressure in the right place, which is against forced labor. The decoupling of these two nations’ markets isn’t desirable in itself, but the decoupling of U.S. companies from gross human rights violations and cultural genocide certainly is.