US puts pressure on China with genocide accusation

By Leonie Barrie | 20 January 2021 just style Font size Email Print The outgoing Trump administration has declared that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. "I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement before leaving office yesterday (19 January).

"The governing authorities of the second most economically, militarily, and politically powerful country on earth have made clear that they are engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group, even as they simultaneously assert their country as a global leader and attempt to remould the international system in their image." While the Pompeo statement puts pressure on China, it will not automatically lead to any fresh sanctions against the country under the new Biden administration. However, a US genocide declaration does mean increased reputational and compliance risks for companies doing business with the region, as well as raising the spectre of further US penalties against China. The US has been stepping up its efforts to crack down on forced labour in supply chains, and last week introduced a sweeping regional ban on the import of cotton products from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The blanket Withhold Release Order (WRO) announced by United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) means that from 13 January, cotton products – including apparel and textiles – will be detained at US ports of entry.

It is the fourth WRO that CBP has issued since the beginning of fiscal year 2021, and the second on products originating in Xinjiang, and has been spurred by mounting concerns over the detention of between 1-3 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others in internment camps across China's Xinjiang province – and the forced use of detainee or prison labour in fields and factories. The move is significant for apparel supply chains because around 80% of China's cotton is produced in the Uyghur region – representing around 20% of the industry's global cotton supply – much of which is made into yarn used in textile and apparel produced in the region, and other factories globally. It may accelerate the current move of clothing and textile business away from China, exacerbated by that country's ongoing trade war with the United States and the appeal of cheaper competitors like Bangladesh and Vietnam, just-style has been told.

There is also the likelihood of further actions in the future. Two pieces of legislation introduced last year – the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210) and the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act (H.R. 6270) – would have established a "guilty until proven innocent" blanket standard that would affect any products made in Xinjiang. China's Foreign Ministry responded by dismissing the State Department's determination "as a piece of waste paper." In September the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China also hit back at allegations over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by saying its actions in the region are focused on counterterrorism and anti-separatism.

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