The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said on Wednesday its “Withhold Release Order” would ban cotton and cotton products from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of China’s largest producers.
The move, which China said was based on a fabrication, is the latest by the Trump administration in its final weeks to harden the U.S. position against Beijing, making it more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to ease U.S.-China tensions.
The ban against XPCC, which produced here 30% of China’s cotton in 2015 could have a sweeping effect on companies globally involved in selling textiles and apparel to the United States.
It follows a Treasury Department ban in July on all dollar transactions with the sprawling business-and-paramilitary entity, founded in 1954 to settle China’s far west.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli, who oversees the border agency, called “Made in China” a “warning label.”
“The cheap cotton goods you may be buying for family and friends during this 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 in the modern world,” he told a news conference.
Cuccinelli said a region-wide Xinjiang cotton import ban was still being studied.
China’s Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded by saying that U.S. politicians “concoct false news about forced labor so as to suppress Chinese firms and China.”
“All workers in Xinjiang choose their occupations based on their own volition and sign labor contracts with firms based on the principle of equality and free will,” she told a news conference on Thursday, adding that the ban contravenes international trade rules and would hurt consumers everywhere.
The United Nations cites what it says are credible reports that 1 million Muslims held in camps have been put to work. China denies mistreating Uighurs and says the camps are vocational training centers needed to fight extremism.
Major clothing brands including Gap Inc, Patagonia Inc and Zara owner Inditex have told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that did not source from factories in Xinjiang – but that they could not confirm that their supply chains were free of cotton picked from the region.