WASHINGTON — The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to pass legislation that would ban imports of a wide variety of products made in China’s Xinjiang region to prevent companies from buying goods produced through forced labor by persecuted Muslim minorities.
Its adoption was a victory for supporters of an aggressive human rights measure that faced a fierce corporate lobbying campaign by companies claiming it was too onerous and would disrupt global supply chains. The vote sent the measure to President Biden’s office, where he was expected to sign it into law.
The bill represents the strongest legislative response yet to China’s campaign against the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, whom the Biden administration has called genocide. It would impose a high standard on companies looking to import products from the region by banning goods “wholly or partly” made in Xinjiang unless companies can prove to customs that the products were not made using forced labour.
“Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains,” said Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and one of the drafters of the bill. “They should not be concerned about this law. For those who have not, they will no longer be able to make Americans – frankly all of them – unwitting accomplices to the atrocities, to the genocide being perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Legislation had stalled on Capitol Hill for months, even as lawmakers disapproved of the gravity of China’s massive crackdown on Uyghurs. Those crimes include the use of forced sterilizations and abortions, and the placing of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in concentration camps, where they have suffered torture and sexual abuse.
Few officials or companies were willing to publicly oppose the legislation, wary of the optic of appearing indifferent to genocide. But behind the scenes, the bill’s strict standard — which assumes all goods produced in the region are made with forced labor unless companies can prove otherwise — alarmed some Biden companies, lawmakers and government officials who feared it was too broad. .
About one in five cotton garments sold worldwide contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, and the region produces a significant portion of the world’s polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels and smartphones. Some government officials feared that the norm at the heart of the bill would cripple already disrupted supply chains and create additional obstacles to meeting the country’s climate goals, according to congressional officials familiar with the discussions.
Companies like Nike, Coca-Cola and Apple also lobbied Congress in an effort to weaken that provision.
But lawmakers converged on a compromise version of the legislation earlier this week and pushed it through, a burst of momentum that came after Mr. Rubio withdrew from consideration of the annual defense policy bill and demanded that the Senate turn its attention to the forced labor measure.
The final version kept the strict corporate import standard, but removed a related measure requiring companies to disclose any involvement in a wide range of activities in the Xinjiang region. That reporting requirement, which major companies vehemently opposed, has been met with resistance from some lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed in a statement that Mr. Biden would sign the bill, noting that the White House had previously cracked down on forced labor in the supply chain for solar panels made in Xinjiang by products of specific companies.
“The administration will work closely with Congress to implement this bill to ensure global supply chains are free from forced labor, while simultaneously working on key land and third country supply chains, including semiconductors and clean energy,” said Ms. psaki.
Legislative drama continued to haunt legislation to the end. Attempts by Mr. Rubio to speed up the passage of the bill on Wednesday were halted by Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, who attempted to tie an extension of a declining child tax credit payment that Republicans oppose to the measure. against forced labour.
“Placing this bill through law will allow American consumers and businesses to purchase goods without unintentionally complicity in the horrific human rights abuses in China,” said Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, Sen. Jeff Merkley, who co-sponsored the legislation. “While the Chinese government tries to condone their genocide and claim a propaganda victory with the upcoming Olympics, this legislation sends a strong, two-pronged message that the United States will not sleep a wink.”