WASHINGTON — Senators gave final congressional approval Thursday to a bill barring imports from China’s Xinjiang region unless businesses can prove they were produced without forced labor, overcoming initial hesitation from the White House and what supporters said was opposition from corporations.
The measure is the latest in a series intensifying U.S. penalties over China’s alleged systemic and widespread abuse of ethnic and religious minorities in the western region, especially Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. The Biden administration also announced new sanctions Thursday targeting several Chinese biotech and surveillance companies, a leading drone manufacturer and government entities for their actions in Xinjiang.
The Senate vote sends the bill to President Joe Biden. Press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that Biden supported the measure, after months of the White House declining to take a public stand on an earlier version of the legislation.
The United States says China is committing genocide in its treatment of the Uyghurs. That includes widespread reports by rights groups and journalists of forced sterilization and large detention camps where many Uyghurs allegedly are compelled to work in factories.
China denies any abuses. It says the steps it has taken are necessary to combat terrorism and a separatist movement.
The U.S. cites raw cotton, gloves, tomato products, silicon and viscose, fishing gear and a range of components in solar energy as among goods alleged to have been produced with the help of the forced labor.
Xinjiang is a resource-rich mining region, important for agricultural production, and home to a booming industrial sector. Detainees also are moved outside Xinjiang and put to work in factories, including those in the apparel and textiles, electronics, solar energy and automotive sectors, the U.S. says.
“Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains. And, frankly, they should have no concerns about this law," Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who introduced the earlier version of the legislation with Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, said in a statement.
“For those who have not done that, they’ll no longer be able to continue to make Americans — every one of us, frankly — unwitting accomplices in the atrocities, in the genocide," Rubio said.
As in the House earlier this week, the compromise version passed the Senate with overwhelming approval from Democrats and Republicans. The swift passage came after what supporters said was offstage opposition from corporations with manufacturing links to China, although there was little to no overt opposition.
Apple’s lobbying firm lobbied on Apple’s behalf, a federal disclosure form shows. Apple, like Nike and other corporations with work done in China, says it has found no sign of forced labor from Xinjiang in its manufacturing or supply chain.
Some Uyghur rights advocates and others said they had also feared private opposition from within the Biden administration as it sought cooperation from the Chinese on climate change and other issues.
Psaki, in her statement Tuesday night, noted export controls and import restrictions, sanctions, diplomatic initiatives and other measures the Biden administration had already taken targeting forced labor from Xinjiang.
The Senate also approved Biden's nominee for ambassador to China, veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns, on a 75-18 vote Thursday.
Advocates credited unrelenting support from rights groups and lawmakers, including statements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with helping the bill prevail.
With the legislation, sanctions and months of other new measures, “the United States is way ahead” of the international community on confronting China on abuses of Uyghurs, said Nury Turkel, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
How can anyone get China to change “without going after the most important thing to the Chinese government, which is their economic interest?" asked Turkel, who praised Congress — but not the administration — for what he called coherent messaging on the matter.
The legislation requires government agencies to expand their monitoring of the use of forced labor by China’s ethnic minorities. Crucially, it creates a presumption that goods coming from Xinjiang are made with forced labor. Businesses will have to prove that forced labor, including by workers transferred from Xinjiang, played no part in a product to bring it into the United States.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department announced new penalties targeting China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and its 11 research institutes that focus on using biotechnology to support the Chinese military.
The move bars American companies from selling goods and technologies to the entities without a license.
China “is choosing to use these technologies to pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.
Separately, the Treasury Department announced it was placing DJI, the world's largest drone manufacturer, and seven other Chinese companies on an investment blacklist over their alleged involvement in biometric surveillance and tracking of Uyghurs.
The measure means individuals in the U.S. will be prohibited from purchasing or selling publicly traded securities connected with the companies.
DJI dominates the global market for the small, low-altitude drones used by hobbyists, photographers and many businesses and governments.
Other companies added to the Treasury blacklist are image-recognition software firm Megvii, supercomputer manufacturer Dawning Information Industry, facial recognition specialist CloudWalk Technology, cybersecurity group Xiamen Meiya Pico, artificial intelligence company Yitu Technology and cloud computing firms Leon Technology and NetPosa Technologies.
U.S. intelligence has established that Beijing has set up a high-tech surveillance system across Xinjiang that uses biometric facial recognition and has collected DNA samples from all residents, ages 12 to 65, as part of a systematic effort to suppress Uyghurs, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the sanctions on the condition of anonymity.
The Commerce Department said multiple federal agencies determined that the Chinese academy and research institutes “use biotechnology processes to support Chinese military end uses and end users, to include purported brain-control weaponry.”
The White House announced last week it would stage a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, citing China’s “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.” U.S. athletes will compete but Biden will not send the usual contingent of dignitaries.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.
Rights groups note prison labor has long been a part of the U.S. economy, with inmates producing goods and providing services such as call centers for what is typically reduced pay. Opponents say the system disproportionately profits off the labor of incarcerated Black Americans.