A worker packages spools of cotton yarn at a Huafu Fashion plant, as seen during a government organized trip for foreign journalists, in Aksu in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Credit: Mark Schieflebein / AP

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Congress often gets a bad rap, and deservedly so, for inaction. But that doesn’t mean nothing important ever gets done. For example, lawmakers recently passed a bill that will ban the importation of products made with forced Uyghur labor in China.

Who could oppose such a measure against forced labor, happening as part of what succesive U.S. administrations have called a genocide against the Uyghur Muslim minority in China? Large corporations with profits on the line, it would seem.

Despite reported lobbying pressure from Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola and others, Congress eventually passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. President Joe Biden has since signed it into law.

Led by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, this new law bans all imports from China’s Xinjiang region unless companies can prove their goods weren’t made with forced labor.

The approach is absolutely warranted given what the world knows about China’s egregious detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese government first denied that detention camps even existed, but that denial shifted into calling them “vocational” facilities aimed at countering radicalism and separatism.

“For two years now, American companies — big companies — have been lobbying against my bill to crack down on the use of slave labor in China,” Rubio said in a Dec. 14 video. “We as a country have become so reliant on China that we’ve turned a blind eye to the slave labor that makes our shoes, our solar panels and much more.”

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon also helped lead the push for this legislation in the Senate. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King both co-sponsored Rubio’s bill earlier in 2021.

“Getting this bill over the finish line and into law ensures that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China’s horrific human rights abuses,” Merkley said in a statement. “As the Chinese government tries to whitewash their genocide and claim a propaganda victory with the upcoming Olympics, this legislation sends a powerful, bipartisan message that the United States will not turn a blind eye.”

The White House had previously said that Biden would sign the bill into law, which he did in late December.

“The President welcomes the agreement by Congress on the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We agree with Congress that action can and must be taken to hold the People’s Republic of China accountable for genocide and human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Dec. 14 statement.

Some Republicans had accused Biden climate envoy John Kerry of lobbying against the bill so as to not complicate work to engage with China on addressing climate change. The White House strongly denied that accusation.

It is fantasy to think that the U.S. cannot and should not continue to engage with China economically, environmentally and in other areas when possible. But there is an important difference between seeking areas of cooperation with China and being complicit in China’s specific human rights abuses. This is true for multinational corporations, too. As just one example, recent reports of how Amazon “partnered with an arm of China’s propaganda apparatus” — as Reuters put it — are disturbing.

The U.S. and international community, including the business community, should not completely vilify China. But everyone should be capable of vilifying the obviously villainous actions that have been happening under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule, profits be damned.


The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...