US Customs and Border Protection will detain shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a major cotton producer in the region, which is home to about 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority.
“The ‘made in China’ label is not just about the country of origin. It’s a warning label,” Ken Cuccinelli, the Department of Homeland Security senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary, said during a news conference Wednesday. “Those cheap cotton goods you may be buying for family and friends during the season of giving, if coming from China, may have been made by slave labor in some of the most egregious human rights violations existing today.”
On Wednesday, CBP issued what is known as a “Withhold Release Order” on cotton from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which allows the agency to detain shipments at US ports and gives companies the opportunity to export their shipments or to demonstrate that the merchandise was not produced with forced labor.
The latest order applies to all cotton products from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and its affiliate entities, such as clothing textiles, cottonseed oil and paper products.
“XPCC’s reach is quite extraordinary in the Xinjiang region,” said Cuccinelli. The company employs an estimated 12% of Xinjiang’s population and generates 17% of its cotton heavy industry, according to CBP.
Eighty-five percent of the cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang, according to CBP Executive Assistant Commissioner Brenda Smith, who noted the challenges for the industry to separate out goods made with forced labor versus goods that are not.
However, CBP said it’s the responsibility of US companies to ensure they are not importing products produced with forced labor.
“These companies absolutely have a responsibility to make sure that they implement due diligence. They have been on notice. There’s no ambiguity there,” said Mark Morgan, CBP senior official performing the duties of the commissioner.
While Wednesday’s order falls short of a regional restriction, it will have “sweeping impact” because of the reach that Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps has on the region and the cotton industry, said Cuccinelli.
He said a regional order is still “on the table” but that the agency wants to ensure it would be functional and operable before moving ahead.
CNN’s Nectar Gan, Ben Westcott and James Griffiths contributed to this report.