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US halts cotton, tomato imports from China's Uighur region amid human rights concerns

The US government announced today that it will halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from the Uighur region of China in its most sweeping action yet to pressure the Communist Party to stop a campaign against ethnic minorities.

A map showing China's different ethnic groups and the slogan "Ethnic Unity" in Beijing, China. Source: Associated Press

Officials said Customs and Border Protection will use its authority to block products suspected of being produced with forced labour in the Xinjiang region of northwest China.

The region is a major global supplier of cotton, so the order could have significant effects on global commerce.

The Trump administration has already blocked imports from individual companies linked to forced labour in Xinjiang.

Some manufacturers have criticised the use of a region-wide order, arguing it can be hard to ensure tainted raw materials do not enter the supply chain.

That is especially true with Chinese cotton that is used to make clothing for export in other countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.

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China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps.

People have been subjected to torture, forced sterilisation and political indoctrination in addition to forced labour as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority.

China denies allegations of rights abuses and forced labour, saying it aims only to raise incomes among minorities and stamp out radicalism.

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The US action is the latest, and most sweeping, attempt to pressure China to end the campaign.

Canada and the British government both recently said they too would take steps to stop goods tainted by forced labor from entering their countries.

Customs and Border Protection has in the past targeted entire product lines and regions with import bans, including issuing an order against cotton from Turkmenistan in 2018 and gold from artisanal mines in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019.