Can We Prevent Forced Uyghur Labor Already?

December 13, 2021

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.1155, The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA). It's an important bill -- the most important bill -- when it comes to confronting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on its human rights abuse. Yet, while this is an important milestone, there's still a process before it becomes law, and Congress should get moving.

The UFLPA would prohibit goods produced in the Xinjiang region in China from entering the United States, unless companies can prove that the items are not made with forced labor. Unfortunately, the use of forced labor from Uyghurs formerly or currently detained in internment camps in Xinjiang is so widespread that it is safe to assume most, if not all, of the products with a supply chain running through the region are tainted with forced labor.

If signed into law, the UFLPA would protect American consumers from participating in egregious human rights violations far from home. For the Chinese government, it would also put an economic price tag on its horrific treatment of the Uyghur people.

The bill's passage comes as an independent tribunal in the United Kingdom reviewed the evidence of what is unfolding in Xinjiang and determined that it fits the criteria of crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide under international law. These findings warrant a response, and the UFLPA is a good place to start.

Unfortunately, this bipartisan effort couldn't fully escape being used as a partisan weapon. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R- Fla.) introduced the Senate version of the UFLPA as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Democrats blocked it. Faced with intense criticism for doing so, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put forward the House's version of the UFLPA to a vote. This is what passed last week. And while the House bill is great, the Senate's version -- which already passed earlier this year -- has slight differences. This means the two bills will need to be reconciled in conference or the Senate will have to pass the House version. Had the House voted on Rubio's version instead (which is waiting for a vote in the House), then the UFLPA could already be on the way to President Biden to sign into law.

Sadly, though Pelosi sent dozens of bills that were passed in the House last week to the Senate for a vote, the UFLPA was conspicuously absent. Now, the Senate couldn't move on the UFLPA if it wanted to.

To her credit, Pelosi has long been a strong supporter of human rights in China. It leads one to wonder if the White House has been pressuring Democratic leadership against this bill, despite their claims to the contrary. Administration officials including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman have tried to slow down and weaken the UFLPA. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) indicated frustration with the situation, saying, "It isn't partisan or in any way controversial for the U.S. to be unequivocally, resoundingly opposed to genocide and slave labor. The Senate passed this legislation in July, and it's time to get it over the finish line."

When it comes to China's human rights issues, the mixed signals from the Biden administration are becoming difficult to keep up with. Secretary of State Antony Blinken maintained the Trump administration's genocide determination but kept quiet on China's human rights abuses for the sake of climate agreements. The administration shows resistance to the UFLPA, but announces a diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 Olympics over human rights issues. President Biden invited Taiwan to take part in the Summit for Democracy, but cut the live feed of the Taiwanese minister when her presentation showed a map with Taiwan in a different color than China. This is confusing, but one thing is clear -- a house divided against itself won't be able to stand up to China's oppressive government.

The Biden administration can take one step closer to a coherent foreign policy that values human rights by supporting the UFLPA, rather than undermining it. At the end of the day, it will be a very good thing when the UFLPA reaches the president's desk to sign into law, no matter how it gets there and whether it's the House or Senate version. Members of Congress should act with a greater sense of urgency. Suffering Uyghur Muslims are being forced to make Nike shoes while American politicians hesitate.