Amid worsening relations between Beijing and Washington, President Joe Biden signed a new law on Thursday banning products made in China’s Xinjiang region because of China’s oppression of its largely Muslim Uighur minority population.
Pushed by members of the United States Congress, the law passed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate by unanimous votes earlier this month.
It imposes a near-blanket ban on the import to the US of goods from Xinjiang by requiring suppliers to first prove their products were not made with forced labour. Xinjiang is a large supplier of cotton and solar panels.
United Nations experts and rights groups have estimated that more than one million people, mainly Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities, have been imprisoned in recent years in a vast system of camps in Xinjiang. The US and many rights groups have called it “genocide“.
“It is a horrifying human rights situation, fully sanctioned – as we now know – by the Communist Party of China,” US Senator Marco Rubio, the lead Republican sponsor of the bill, said last week.
China has rejected allegations of abuse in Xinjiang, accusing countries and rights organisations of launching “slanderous attacks” about conditions for Muslim Uighurs and other minorities in the far western region.
The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency on the new US law on Thursday.
The legislation provides for sanctions on any individuals the US determines are responsible for forced labour in Xinjiang. It will complicate supply chains for some US companies that source materials from China.
Following a backlash in China, US chipmaker Intel Corp on Thursday apologised to Chinese customers and partners in a public statement on WeChat for having told suppliers in an earlier letter not to source products or labour from Xinjiang.
An independent UK-based tribunal ruled last week the Chinese government had committed genocide, crimes against humanity and torture of Uighurs and other minorities.
The US cited the situation in Xinjiang in a decision earlier this month to launch a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.
On Tuesday, China announced sanctions on four members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in retaliation for penalties imposed on Chinese officials for the alleged abuses in the region.
The Biden administration also imposed trade sanctions last week on several Chinese companies and institutions, a number of Chinese technology companies, accusing the government in Beijing of advancing high-tech surveillance on the Uighurs.
The move by the US Department of Commerce added China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and its 11 research institutes to a US list of companies and institutions subject to export controls.
Earlier, the US placed Chinese artificial intelligence start-up SenseTime Group on a US investment blacklist forcing the company to postpone a planned $767m Hong Kong initial public offering.
Human rights groups have recounted unprecedented surveillance of the Uighurs, including tracing with DNA and artificial intelligence operations to recognise and monitor faces.
Representatives James McGovern, a leading Democrat, and Chris Smith, a Republican and longtime critic of China’s human rights record, had championed the bill in the House. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, had joined with Rubio, to press the bill in the Senate.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a US-based Muslim advocacy group, on Thursday welcomed Biden’s decision to sign the new law.
“The Chinese government is conducting a brutal campaign of genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other Turkic ethnic minority groups in the Uyghur region,” the group’s government affairs director, Robert McCaw, said in a statement.
“By signing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, President Biden has provided our government with a powerful tool to ensure that no American corporation is able profit from Uyghur slave labor and thereby contribute to China’s genocide.”