Feds to block imports of Chinese cotton, tomatoes on suspicions of Uyghur slave labor

China's Foreign Ministry denied using forced labor

The U.S. is now blocking cotton and tomato imports from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns that they are harvested and processed by slave laborers.

"CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] will not tolerate the Chinese government’s exploitation of modern slavery to import goods into the United States below fair market value," Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a statement. "Imports made on the cheap by using forced labor hurt American businesses that respect human rights and also expose unsuspecting consumers to unethical purchases."

An elderly Chinese man looks at map of Chinese showing its different ethnic groups and the slogan "Ethnic Unity" in Beijing, China Monday, Jan. 11. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

An elderly Chinese man looks at map of Chinese showing its different ethnic groups and the slogan "Ethnic Unity" in Beijing, China Monday, Jan. 11. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The State Department and international agencies have accused China’s communist government of detaining and oppressing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group. As many a 1 million of them were believed to be subjected to forced labor and torture in reeducation camps last year.

Under the new order, the CBP will detain all U.S.-bound cotton and tomato products grown or produced out of Xinjiang, ranging from canned sauce to clothing.

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"China is firmly opposed to this," Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said in a news conference Thursday. "‘Forced labor’ is the biggest lie of the century, made by persons and agencies in some Western countries including the United States, with an aim to restrict and suppress the relevant Chinese authorities and companies, and contain China's development."

Beijing has said it takes necessary national security measures against Islamic extremism in its approach to the Uyghurs.

Xinjiang is a major global cotton supplier, so the order also will put pressure on companies that source their materials.

"Any global apparel brand that is not either out of Xinjiang already, or plotting a very swift exit, is courting legal and reputational disaster," Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization, told the Associated Press. "The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over."

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Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said the agency would not tolerate forced labor of any kind in U.S. supply chains.

"We will continue to protect the American people and investigate credible allegations of forced labor, we will prevent goods made by forced labor from entering our country, and we demand the Chinese close their camps and stop their human rights violations," he said.

China also denied accusations that it has forced Uyghurs to undergo organ harvesting and forced birth control.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described China’s alleged suppression of the Uyghurs as the "stain of the century."

According to CBP, the new order is the second aimed at Xinjiang-based production in 2021. Eight others were issued in 2020 targeting other goods allegedly produced by forced labor in China.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.