If Biden wants to crack down on forced labor in Xinjiang, he’s going to need help

Many facilities like this one in Xinjiang are centers where Uyghurs are pressed into forced labor, experts say.
Many facilities like this one in Xinjiang are centers where Uyghurs are pressed into forced labor, experts say.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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When Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the US on Jan. 20, he will inherit a number of thorny problems. Among them is how to confront China about its systematic oppression of the predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in the country’s northwest Xinjiang region. The growing consensus is it constitutes genocide, a label Biden himself has applied to the situation.

The US has taken steps to address the situation under current president Donald Trump, sanctioning Chinese firms and drafting the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would block certain goods made in Xinjiang from entering the country. The bill passed in the House in September but would still need passage in the Senate and Biden’s signature  before it becomes law.

The fashion industry is watching these moves closely. Xinjiang is the epicenter of China’s giant cotton industry, producing around 20% of the world’s cotton according to one common estimate. For years watchdogs have warned of Chinese authorities pressing Uyghurs into forced labor throughout Xinjiang, leading to allegations of forced labor tainting the supply chains of well-known companies such as Nike as well as clothing trickling into the US. It’s not clear how much clothing sold in the US is made with cotton from Xinjiang, but China accounted for roughly one-third of the dollar value of clothing and textiles imported into the US in 2019.

It now remains to be seen how the Biden administration will tackle the problem, which could affect how companies navigate working with suppliers in Xinjiang.

A US-led coalition?

“A lot of folks keep asking the question, ‘Would a president Biden be tougher or less tough than a president Trump?’ I think it would be a different tough,” says Stephen Lamar, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), a large industry trade group. “It would be using perhaps different strategies and tactics, and a different approach that is grounded more in a multilateral, holistic basis than what we’ve seen.”

Biden has indicated he will seek to create an alliance to put pressure on China. In a piece for Foreign Affairs this March, he laid out his thinking on how the US would check China’s unwelcome behavior, writing: “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.” China, he added, “can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.”

It’s a strategy the Trump administration has largely given up on, arguably reducing its leverage required to make China change course in Xinjiang. “You have to get the European Union involved, and that takes diplomatic pressure that maybe wasn’t being brought to bear in the past few years,” says Peter Irwin, senior communications officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), a nonprofit advocacy group. By pulling away from obligations such as the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Irwin says, the US handicapped its ability to bring allies together on other issues, like China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

Biden will probably seek to restore the US as sort of a global team leader. At the same time, it seems unlikely he would reverse any of the existing US sanctions aimed at China. He has signaled his intent to take a hard line on China, and Biden’s party, the Democrats, led the push to create the Uyghur Force Labor Prevention Act.

The UHRP, for one, would like to see Biden maintain the sanctions and support the new legislation. In that regard, though, the advocacy group and a fashion industry representative like the AAFA may find themselves on different sides of a debate about how companies should be expected to deal with the problems in Xinjiang.

What should companies do?

The AAFA argues the pending US legislation on forced labor wouldn’t do enough to eliminate forced labor in Xinjiang, but it would create more obstacles for companies it says are already working to ensure their products aren’t implicated. To be in compliance, they would have to prove a negative—that forced labor does not exist in their supply chains. The legislation would effectively compel them to pull out of the region entirely, which would be costly and penalize the legal, voluntary workers in the region while doing little to curb forced labor.

There are reports, too, of China’s government transferring workers from Xinjiang to other areas where they’re still subject to forced labor. And existing measures don’t address the fact that many of the products made from Xinjiang cotton aren’t exported directly from there to the US. The cotton may be shipped to other parts of China or countries such as Vietnam or Cambodia to be spun into yarn, woven into textiles, and turned into finished clothing, making it hard to trace.

The AAFA has been asking the Trump administration to take the lead on a multinational alliance, according to Lamar, and it will ask Biden to do the same. “Regardless of who’s in the White House, it’s still as far as we’re concerned the only approach that’s going to lead to sustained, irreversible improvement that’s going to fix the situation on the ground there,” Lamar says.

The UHRP, meanwhile, is part of a broader coalition of groups calling for companies to stop sourcing from Xinjiang entirely because forced labor is so widespread companies can’t reasonably ensure their products aren’t touched by it. “It is a radical step for sure, but it’s necessary because of the risk,” Irwin says. “Companies shouldn’t be working or sourcing and having supply chain connections with a region where genocide is taking place.” The Uyghur Force Labor Prevention Act exists, he adds, because companies weren’t taking adequate steps to make sure they weren’t complicit in forced labor. (Many have also remained silent on the issue, despite calling out other injustices.)

There are points Lamar and Irwin are in clear agreement on. One is that there should be zero tolerance for forced labor in supply chains and companies need to do their part to police them. Another is that the US needs to act. Biden may not throw out Trump’s playbook entirely, but he’ll take his own route, which probably means gathering allies to pressure China.