Dec 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Congress calls on Biden to impose "first real costs" over China's genocide

Illustration of Uyghur forced labor
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Congress on Wednesday sent the Biden administration and Corporate America an unequivocal message about the Chinese government's repression of Uyghur Muslims: If this is genocide, as the U.S has declared, the response can't be business as usual.

Driving the news: The House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the U.S. government determines with "clear and convincing evidence" the products were not made with forced labor.

Why it matters: Major corporations like Nike and Coca Cola have lobbied against the bill, which would have far-reaching consequences for U.S. supply chains deeply integrated with Chinese industry.

  • “Stop. Figure out another way to make money," Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), a founding member of the Uyghur Caucus, told Axios when asked for his message to American businesses.
  • Suozzi acknowledged the bill could cause supply-chain disruptions but stressed: "When everything's said and done, that's too bad. This is so egregious that we have to act."

The big picture: The Biden administration has been outspoken about China's campaign of mass detention, surveillance, forced labor and forced sterilization of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities — but has declined to throw its weight behind the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

  • Peter Irwin, an advocate with the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Axios the "piecemeal approach" the U.S. has taken with sanctions, targeted customs restrictions and business advisories can only be effective to a certain point.
  • This is where "the rubber meets the road" on rhetoric vs. action, Irwin says: The bill would impose "the first real costs" the Chinese government has ever faced for its atrocities in Xinjiang.

Between the lines: Like all things China, the debate also has been ensnared in the fight against climate change.

  • Xinjiang accounts for nearly 50% of the world's polysilicon, a raw material used to manufacture solar panels.
  • The administration has vehemently denied allegations from Republicans that officials like climate envoy John Kerry have lobbied against the bill to ensure the U.S. can cooperate with China on climate change.

What they're saying: A senior State Department official told Axios: "To be clear, the Department of State is not opposing this [bill]."

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month the administration has offered "technical assistance on the legislation."

What to watch: The Senate unanimously passed its own version of the bill last month, but there are several differences in the legislation that must be reconciled by the two chambers.

  • The White House has not said whether President Biden will sign the bill if and when it reaches his desk.
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