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US bans Chinese products using Uyghur 'forced labor'

Washington turns up pressure on Beijing over its detention of more than one million Uyghur Muslims

US bans Chinese products using Uyghur 'forced labor'

Watch towers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained near Hotan in China's Xinjiang region. The US announced on Sept. 14 that it would block a range of Chinese products made by 'forced labor' in the Xinjiang region. (Photo: AFP)

The US plans to block a range of Chinese products made by "forced labor" in the Xinjiang region, where millions of ethnic Uyghur Muslims are facing human rights abuses.

"The Chinese government is engaged in systematic abuses against the Uyghur people" and other minorities, said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection agency. "Forced labor is an atrocious human rights abuse," he said.

Cotton, garments, hair products and electronics from five firms in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and adjacent Anhui will be denied access to the US market under the new order.

The order also applies to Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center in Xinjiang, which US Homeland Security acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli termed as a center of forced labor.

"This is not a vocational center, it is a concentration camp, a place where religious and ethnic minorities are subject to abuse and forced to work in heinous conditions with no recourse and no freedom," Cuccinelli told reporters.

The US actions include "withhold release orders" or WROs, allowing seizure of products from blacklisted companies and organizations.

The US government is putting extreme pressure on China over its detention of more than one million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and human rights abuses in Tibet and Hong Kong.

In July, the US had put WRO blocks on hair products such as wigs and extensions made by companies operating in Xinjiang. In August, it did the same for garments made by the Hero Vast Group.

In July, the US imposed sanctions on a major paramilitary group, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, for abuses against Uyghur Muslim groups.

"The Chinese government needs to close its concentration camps," said Cuccinelli.

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Several officials including Chen Quanguo, Chinese Communist Party chief for the Xinjiang region, are also facing US sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new orders "demonstrate that the world will not stand for the PRC's [China's] human rights abuses against Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang."

World Uyghur Congress president Dolkun Isa said the new US customs measures "will send a strong message to Beijing that China's continued use of Uyghur forced labor is unacceptable and must stop."

In another development, the European Union has asked China to allow independent observers to visit Xinjiang to get first-hand information on Uyghurs' treatment.

EU Council president Charles Michel raised concerns about Xinjiang and Tibet as well as China's national security law imposed on Hong Kong in a video conference with China's President Xi Jinping.

"We reiterated our concerns over China's treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists," Michel said.

China is reported to have detained more than 1.8 million Uyghurs and other minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.

In October 2018, China acknowledged the existence of these camps but it described them as voluntary "vocational centers" that aim to combat radical Islamic terrorism.

The EU, whose earlier requests for access to Xinjiang have been denied, is less vocal in its criticism of China's abuses against Uyghurs.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron last week termed repression of the Uyghurs "unacceptable" after a letter by a group of around 30 French lawmakers.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi started a five-nation tour of Europe in September, he was dogged by criticism of Xinjiang and other human rights issues against minorities.

During a meeting with Wang, his German counterpart Heiko Maas urged China to allow a UN fact-finding mission to probe the internment camps.

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