US House passes final version of China bill that bans all Xinjiang imports over forced labour

  • Senate and House members compromise on how quickly the import ban must be implemented after the legislation becomes law: 180 days
  • The bill creates a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that all goods sourced wholly or in part from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang are tainted with forced labour

US forced labour legislation that would ban imports from China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region inched closer to becoming law on Tuesday, when the House of Representatives passed a final iteration of the text that reconciled key differences between House and Senate versions.

The Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act’s main sponsor in the House, Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, announced earlier in the day that he had reached an agreement on the bill’s final text with Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has led the legislation in the Senate.

The Senate must vote on the reconciled version before it is sent to President Joe Biden to sign the bill into law.

The new version includes a compromise on how quickly the import ban must be implemented following the legislation’s enactment; the reconciled version provides a grace period of 180 days, significantly shorter than the Senate version’s 300 days and slightly longer than the House bill’s 120 days.

In a voice vote late on Tuesday evening, House Representatives agreed unanimously to the new text, sending the bill to the upper chamber where Senators are expected to vote on the measure as soon as Wednesday.

“Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, will continue to condemn and confront the [Chinese Communist Party’s] human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in the region and hold it accountable,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California.

As Congress pushed the bill towards the finish line, the White House indicated that Biden will sign the bill into law once it arrives on his desk.

“We agree with Congress that action can and must be taken to hold the People’s Republic of China accountable for genocide and human rights abuses and to address forced labour in Xinjiang,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The forced labour bill, first introduced in early 2020, creates a “rebuttable presumption” that all goods sourced wholly or in part from Xinjiang are tainted with forced labour and therefore not eligible for import into the US.

Companies will be able to appeal, but only if they can prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that their supply chains are free of forced labour – a task that analysts say is nearly impossible, given independent auditors’ inability to gain free access to the region.

Tuesday’s development came days after the House approved its version of the bill by a near unanimous majority. The Senate passed its legislation in July.

The decision by leadership in the Democratic-controlled House to vote on its own version rather than just adopt the Senate bill last week prompted some frustration among Republicans, who warned of “legislative gridlock” as lawmakers sought to iron out the bills’ differences.

As well as the discrepancy between the two bills’ respective grace periods, the reconciled text also removes provisions from the House version that would have required public companies to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission any dealings with entities that have ties to the surveillance or detention of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

US Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, helped work out a compromise on the forced labour bill.

 

Those provisions were stripped from the new bill because of Republican opposition in the Senate, according to a congressional aide familiar with the matter.

Rubio did not respond to a request for comment about the change, but issued a statement praising Tuesday’s deal. “The United States is so reliant on China that we have turned a blind eye to the slave labour that makes our clothes, our solar panels and much more,” he said. “That changes today.”

Lawmakers from both parties have been largely united in pushing for a strong US policy response to China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where the government is accused of detaining ethnic minority groups en masse and subjecting them to forced labour and political indoctrination.

Beijing denies allegations of human rights abuses, and considers the forced labour bill a case of “political manipulation” and an attempt to bully China economically “in the name of human rights”, according to Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Calling on US politicians to halt the bill, Liu said that China was “firmly resolved in defending its national interests,” and vowed “resolute countermeasures” over attempts to harm the country’s interests.

He did not respond to a question about what form such measures would take if the forced labour bill is enacted.

After its introduction in March 2020, the legislation breezed through the House before stalling in the Senate. Attempts to add the bill to an end-of-year spending bill failed, and it was wiped off the docket as the new Congress began in January.

While the timing is less critical this time around, McGovern said last week that he wanted the bill passed before the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing in February.

Author: Owen Churchill, SCMP

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