The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration bans imports of cotton and tomatoes from China’s Xinjiang region, citing forced labor

Move is the latest in a flurry of efforts to cut trade ties with China before Trump leaves office

Workers in a cotton field in China's Xinjiang region. Cotton has been a key crop in the area, but the United States is now taking action against cotton thought to be the product of forced labor. (Lorenz Huber for The Washington Post)

The Trump administration Wednesday issued a sweeping ban on imports of cotton or tomato products from China’s Xinjiang region, saying it had reviewed evidence of forced labor in the region.

The move is the administration’s latest effort to punish China over what Western officials and human rights groups call the country’s campaign of repression against the Muslim Uighur population of Xinjiang, which has included the population’s mass detention in camps.

The ban, which covers everything from cotton apparel to canned tomatoes, will affect a wide array of U.S. importers. Xinjiang accounts for almost a fifth of global cotton production, according to official figures and calculations by The Washington Post.

Sanctions on China’s top cotton supplier weave a tangled web for fashion brands

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday it would immediately start detaining cotton and tomato products produced in the region, “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of detainee or prison labor and situations of forced labor.”

The agency said it conducted an investigation that revealed working conditions including “debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions.”

“DHS will not tolerate forced labor of any kind in U.S. supply chains. We will continue to protect the American people and investigate credible allegations of forced labor, we will prevent goods made by forced labor from entering our country, and we demand the Chinese close their camps and stop their human rights violations,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement.

The ban includes textiles, tomato seeds, tomato sauce and other goods made with cotton and tomatoes.

China’s embassy in Washington called the allegation of forced labor “a political lie concocted by some U.S. politicians.”

“The U.S. side resorts to pressure, sanctions and other means to suppress Xinjiang enterprises and undercut Xinjiang’s stability, development and prosperity,” the embassy said in an emailed statement. “China will continue taking necessary measures to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of relevant parties and companies.”

In a statement, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the National Retail Federation and two other industry groups said they “remain outraged” by reports of forced labor in the region and “have long made eradicating forced labor in our supply chains a top operational and public policy priority.”

“We look forward to working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to make sure enforcement is smart, transparent, targeted, and effective,” the groups said. “We urge CBP to share with industry the evidence gathered, and the evidentiary thresholds used, that led to today’s announcement.”

The measure follows a more targeted ban the Trump administration issued in December against cotton products made by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which CBP called “an economic and paramilitary organization subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.”

In September, the United States banned the import of certain apparel and computer parts from China, saying they were made by forced laborers from Xinjiang.

Over the past three years, a heavy-handed Chinese anti-extremism campaign has swept an estimated 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities into what the government calls “reeducation centers.” Satellite images show these high-security compounds are similar in layout to prisons, and former detainees have alleged they were subject to torture.

Many detainees were placed at textile factory jobs in Xinjiang upon their release, according to official reports. Local officials have said it is voluntary work for rehabilitated criminals, but some workers have alleged they were threatened with detention if they refused.

The U.S. actions have followed a concerted push by a coalition of more than 190 organizations urging major fashion brands to stop using Xinjiang cotton and international auditing firms to stop working with factories in the region.