Dec 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate passes Uyghur forced labor bill

Marco Rubio

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a rare bipartisan compromise, the Senate unanimously passed a bill punishing the Chinese government for its genocide of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities — and agreed to hold a vote later on Thursday to confirm Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China.

Driving the news: The Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which passed the House on Tuesday, would ban all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the U.S. government determines with "clear and convincing evidence" that they were not made with forced labor.

  • The White House confirmed this week that President Biden will sign the bill, after months of allegations from Republicans that the administration was lobbying against it.
  • Just one member of Congress — Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) — voted against the original version of the bill, reflecting the overwhelming bipartisan consensus of the need to respond to Beijing's human rights abuses.

Why it matters: Human rights activists say the bill will impose the first substantive costs the Chinese government has ever faced for its atrocities in Xinjiang — and could set a precedent for other countries to follow suit.

  • Major corporations like Nike and Coca Cola had lobbied against the bill, which has far-reaching consequences for U.S. supply chains deeply integrated with Chinese industry.
  • Xinjiang, the region where more than 1 million ethnic minorities have reportedly passed through mass internment camps, accounts for nearly 50% of the world's polysilicon, a raw material used to manufacture solar panels.

Between the lines: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) agreed to lift his hold on Burns' nomination after Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued that the ambassador to China and two other State Department roles would need to be in place to help implement the new law.

  • Rubio and Murphy had sought to pass their compromise via unanimous consent on Wednesday, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected in order to propose a year-long extension to the expiring child tax credit.
  • Wyden stressed that he still supports the Uyghur bill, and did not object again on Thursday.

The big picture: Earlier on Thursday, the Commerce Department announced that it would add 34 Chinese research institutes and tech companies to its export blacklist for developing technologies that can be used to surveil and repress minorities.

  • The Biden administration has been outspoken about China's campaign of forced assimilation in Xinjiang, and has imposed targeted sanctions on officials and entities complicit in the genocide.
  • The U.S. and at least five other countries have announced they will not send government officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of China's human rights abuses.
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