WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of U.S. lawmakers wants the Biden administration to ban seafood processed in two Chinese provinces from entering the U.S. market because of concerns about rights abuses. They also say that Chinese facilities using forced labor should be banned from doing business with American companies.
The request was sent Tuesday by the heads of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China to the Department of Homeland Security. The commission is a congressional group charged with monitoring China’s compliance with international human rights standards.
It’s the latest effort by U.S. lawmakers to restrict imports of Chinese goods on the grounds of rights abuse, a move that is certain to irk Beijing at a time of tensions over trade and other issues.
The commission cited investigations by the nonprofit journalist organization The Outlaw Ocean Project that revealed human rights abuses on China’s fishing fleet and the forced labor of ethnic Uyghurs from the northwestern region of Xinjiang in seafood processing plants in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. It said the sanctions would be necessary to comply with U.S. laws prohibiting the entry of goods made with forced labor.
The commission said there was also emerging evidence of up to 80,000 North Koreans working in seafood processing in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.
Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the commission, called the practices “egregious violations of human rights” that contravened U.S. laws against the use of forced labor.
“From fish sticks to calamari, these products infiltrate the supply chains of major restaurants, wholesalers, and even find their way into the meals served at American schools and military bases,” Smith said at a Tuesday hearing.
He said China’s actions also have national security implications. Chinese fishing vessels have been used to expand and cement China’s maritime claims in disputed waters, Smith said.
China has rejected the allegation that Uyghurs have been forced to work in factories far from their homes and says its programs are intended to create better-paying jobs for them and are welcomed by the Uyghurs.
China has been accused of the mass detention, repression and political indoctrination of Uyghurs, most of whom identify as Muslims. Beijing insists its policy in Xinjiang is necessary to fight extremism, separatism and terrorism following a spate of violent attacks. It says it only ran vocational programs until 2019 to teach law, language and work skills.
Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2021 to ensure goods entering the U.S. market would not involve use of forced labor from the region. Beijing accuses Washington of using the issue as a pretext to curb its rise.
Ian Urbina, whose team at The Outlaw Ocean Project spent four years investigating China’s role in the world’s seafood supply chain, testified before the commission. He said the federal law “puts the onus on industry, on the companies themselves, to prove that they do not in fact have Uyghurs or other ethnic minority Xinjiang labor tied to their products and until they do, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are supposed to block shipments of this import.”
The U.S. imports roughly 80% of its seafood, and China supplies more than any other country, according to the organization’s report.
The Outlaw Ocean Project found that thousands of workers were moved across China from Xinjiang to the eastern coastal province of Shandong to work at seafood processing plants that shipped to U.S. importers.
While China’s state media have portrayed Uyghur workers as being grateful for employment opportunities, Urbina’s report says those who resist can be punished and that they are being closely monitored at the factories. The Uyghur workers also have used social media to vent their unhappiness, according to the report.
Following the hearing, Elfidar Iltebir, president of the Uyghur American Association, urged the U.S. government to fully enforce the law.
“Given that the U.S. government has reportedly spent over $200 million on imported seafood in the past five years, there is a pressing concern about its potential connection to Uyghur forced labor in the processing plants in China,” she said.