Forced Labor in China: More Import Bans, But Does It Matter?

On January 3, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced a ban on cotton products and tomato products produced in Xinjiang, based on information “that reasonably indicates the use of detainee or prison labor and situations of forced labor.” This does not come as a surprise: We warned about such a ban on cotton in October (see Xinjiang. Ten Foot Pole.) and did so again in December (see “Made in China” Is a Warning Label, But …).

These efforts are welcome, given the gravity of Xinjiang’s forced labor problem. However, as we make clear every time we blog about the topic, the problem is not limited to products produced in Xinjiang. Uighurs and members of other minority groups from Xinjiang work under conditions of forced labor all over China. These workers could be forced to work in tomato farms in Ningxia or Inner Mongolia, both tomato-growing regions. Though the tomatoes would not be produced in Xinjiang, it would still constitute forced labor. Alternatively, tomatoes could be farmed in Inner Mongolia using forced labor from Inner Mongolia or some other part of China. In fact, last October, CBP made a forced labor finding against a company from Inner Mongolia that produces stevia extracts and derivatives. Furthermore, prison labor is commonplace across China.

The bottom line is that, if we care about this issue, we must understand that China’s forced labor problem is not only a Xinjiang problem. Even if CBP banned all products from Xinjiang, products made using forced labor in China would still hit our shores.

Admittedly, it is often impossible to determine if a product was made using forced labor by examining it at a port of entry. However, the Chinese authorities make it impossible for foreign governments and companies to ascertain if supply chains are free of forced labor, through independent, onsite inspections. Moreover, we know they are not making good faith efforts to combat forced labor. On the contrary, forced labor is profitable for companies that use it, and this already provides a corrupt incentive for Chinese authorities to look the other way. In some cases, the entities taking advantage of forced labor are directly connected to the authorities or they are the authorities (for example, prisons and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps).

In the case of Xinjiang (and Tibet, and perhaps elsewhere), forced labor also serves a political purpose. I  addition to giving Chinese companies a competitive advantage over those that do not use slave labor, it gives the party-state one more tool to destroy Uighur and other minority identities. From the point of view of the authorities it is a win-win.

As the United States (and other countries as well) continues to reassess its relationship with China, forced labor should be at the forefront of debate. In addition to the obvious human rights implications, it goes to the heart of our economic and strategic challenges from China. Chinese businesses have long enjoyed considerable advantages over the competition, not just in the United States, but also in countries more agreeable to the U.S.-supported rules-based international order. Some of these advantages are fair, but many are not. And among the unfair advantages, forced labor stands out as the most troubling.

I have no doubt that if any other country brazenly used forced labor as China does, or in the same dystopian fashion, the U.S. government would unhesitatingly impose a blanket ban on their products. I am old enough to remember when the world showed some spine staring down apartheid South Africa. But of course, China is different. It is too big. There is too much money at stake. It is too difficult to decouple. And without doubt, following our conscience would be a costly, difficult choice. But that is the choice we are making, and it says much less about China than about us.

For all this, there is still room for hope the incoming Biden administration will step up efforts against forced labor. On the one hand, it will hear many powerful voices urging it to take a more “practical” (i.e., money-focused) approach. At the same time, the nation is getting fed up about a lot of things, and it just so happens the Chinese authorities and powerful voices are among those things with which many are fed up. The issue of forced labor could unite those clamoring for a stronger line against China and against the powerful interests who want all of us to turn a blind eye. It is possible, maybe even likely, big business will gain the upper hand on China policy, but do not rule out a forced labor policy that deals with the problem we have, not the one we would like to have, China Price be damned.

Importers, you have been warned.