HONG KONG: China has scrubbed detailed data on monthly exports from its Xinjiang after the US slapped a ban on shipments over forced labour concerns, in a move that researchers say will make it tougher to track trade from the region.
Far-western Xinjiang – where China stands accused of committing widespread human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities – is a hub for agricultural staples and raw materials. It is also the country’s top cotton producer.
Until August, the government published monthly trade data that included details such as the value and volume of exports from the region with product descriptions and destination countries providing a clear snapshot of where products would be shipped to. Similar specifics about imports into Xinjiang were also made public.
The latest data for August showed shipments to the US had doubled to US$56 million, a 592% jump from a year earlier. But those comprehensive figures have not been published for the past three months. Data published now only reveals the total value and forms of shipments, types of trade and whether the companies involved are foreign, state-owned or private.
The removal of the data comes after US customs in June began enforcing the blockade on shipments from the region. The law was passed unanimously by Congress a year earlier. The measure will last for eight years.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) bans all Xinjiang-sourced imports, from cotton and tomatoes to solar panel parts and floor-tile materials, unless companies can prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that their products were not made using forced labour.
The new law sparked concern among businesses that shipments could be held up by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Authorities said they received more than 2,300 shipments from Xinjiang valued at US$736.4 million, as of Dec 6, since the legislation came into effect.
Laura Murphy, who researches forced labour and global supply chains, said removing public Xinjiang trade figures was a big concern. Government data on the region’s key cotton sector has long been difficult to gather, she added.
“Disappearances of data and changing of data, and mistakes of data are so rampant,” said Murphy, a professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University’s Helen Kennedy Centre for International Justice. “We often find mistakes that often mislead us, and we find things disappearing.”
A December report published by Murphy’s team and the nongovernmental organisation NomoGaia identified 96 mining, processing and manufacturing companies linked to Xinjiang’s auto sector.
More than 40 Chinese manufacturers source from Xinjiang or have workers from transfer programmes that move imprisoned Uyghurs to other parts of the country, the report said.
Among those exposed are Volkswagen, Audi, Honda, Ford, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz. Most of the automakers have responded by saying they’re committed to ensuring products are not linked to forced labour.
Chinese exports to the US totalled US$44.5 billion in October and US$49.2 billion a month earlier. But those official data do not break down trade by region or products. Xinjiang accounts for 84% of China’s cotton exports, according to a 2020 report by the Center for Global Policy.
Goods produced or that have parts made by 20 companies, including Aksu Huafu Textiles Co, Hoshine Silicon Industry, Hotan Haolin Hair Accessories and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business, are banned under a list published by US Homeland Security lists.
In recent years, China cracked down on Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, arbitrarily detaining more than one million people in what critics describe as internment camps. There have also been reports of torture and forced labour, and efforts to squash cultural and religious practices.
Earlier this year, the United Nations said Beijing’s actions could amount to crimes against humanity. China denies all abuse claims and has said the camps were training centres to battle extremist and separatist activity in the remote region.
Australia and the European Union have both said they were beefing up due diligence over imported goods that could involve forced labour, while the EU in September proposed a ban on imports made by foreign labour amid concerns over Xinjiang.
Despite the new American law, a group of 27 Republican lawmakers have pressed US customs about enforcement after a report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project said that red dates grown in Xinjiang were frequently sold at grocery stores across the country.
In its monthly operations update, the American trade agency said it had targeted 398 shipments valued at more than US$129.8 million in October over concerns they were linked to forced labour. But it did not say if the products were seized, or inspected at the border and later released nor whether any of the actions were taken under the Xinjiang export ban.
“The CBP will also prioritise illegally transshipped goods with inputs from Xinjiang, as well as goods imported into the US by entities that, although not located in Xinjiang, are related to an entity in Xinjiang, whether as a parent, subsidiary or affiliate and likely to contain inputs from that region,” a CBP spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The US-China Business Council, which has about 200 company members, said it was aware of shipments being detained, but declined to disclose details.
“While we haven’t seen massive trade disruptions from a deluge of enforcement as some had feared, the latest enforcement figures show that detentions are increasing, and there is a high bar for goods to be released,” Doug Barry, the Council’s vice president for communications, told Nikkei Asia.