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ERLC urges Biden to prevent slave-labor imports

Baptist Press photo

WASHINGTON (BP)—The Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity urged President Biden Friday (June 10) not to permit the introduction into the United States market of products likely made with slave labor by an ethnic minority targeted in a genocidal campaign by China’s Communist regime.

In a letter to Biden, Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), expressed his “profound concerns” that a new White House order could be used to allow into this country solar cells and modules produced in western China by the Uyghur people under forced-labor conditions. The order “poses concerning ramifications for the United States’ righteous efforts to remove forced labor from our supply chains,” Leatherwood wrote.

In another letter, on June 7 the ERLC called for congressional leaders to include in legislation a specific refugee category for Uyghurs and people living in Hong Kong, a special administrative region on China’s southern coast. Including Uyghurs and Hong Kong residents in the Priority 2 (P-2) classification – which is for groups of “special humanitarian concern” to this country — would speed up the process for these refugees, though the U.S. government’s vetting process would still apply to them.

The Chinese Communist Party has carried out a campaign against the Uyghurs, predominantly Muslims in the Xinjiang region, that has included not only forced labor but widespread detention in “re-education” camps and a coercive population control program of abortion and sterilization.

Two U.S. administrations have determined China is guilty of genocide against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. The Trump administration announced its genocide designation on its last full day in January 2021, and the Biden administration affirmed that determination weeks later.

Last June, messengers to the SBC’s annual meeting passed a resolution that made the convention the first Christian denomination to denounce China’s campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide.

Not only are Uyghurs at the mercy of the CCP’s genocidal campaign, but the religious freedom and other human rights of Hong Kong residents are threatened by a 2020 security law enacted by Beijing that has placed the region’s political autonomy at risk.

“China has continued perpetuating a genocide against the Uyghur people, and the United States must exercise courageous and strong leadership,” said Chelsea Sobolik, the ERLC’s director of public policy. “We must continue to send the Chinese Communist Party a clear message, that we will not tolerate goods and products made with forced labor and that we will welcome Uyghurs and Hong Kongers fleeing persecution.”

The ERLC’s letter to Biden came after the president issued an executive order June 6 that permits a two-year window during which solar cells and modules may be imported duty free from the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Through this action, White House officials said the administration – which has expressed concerns about climate change — hopes during this time period to enable solar manufacturing in the United States to increase, according to NBC News.

Solar modules from Southeast Asia made up about three-fourths of those imported into this country in 2020, according to the White House. China’s move of some of its solar production to Southeast Asia to avoid U.S. tariffs means components in shipments to the United States almost assuredly originate in China, human rights advocates say.

A 2021 study showed a sizable portion of the world’s production of solar panels depends on forced labor by Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. About 45 percent of the global supply of polysilicon, a key component of solar modules, is produced in Xinjiang, according to the report by Sheffield Hallam University.

“While we affirm the need for reliable energy sources and responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources, this cannot be done at the expense of human rights,” Leatherwood told Biden in his letter.

“It is unconscionable for the United States to ultimately be accomplices in profiting from slave labor,” he wrote. “In holding the CCP accountable for the horrors that occur on a daily basis in the labor camps of Xinjiang, the United States has the opportunity to send a clear message that their repeated violations and complete disregard of human dignity will not be tolerated.”

In December 2021, Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which prohibits products made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from being introduced into the American market. According to the measure, there will be a “rebuttable presumption” that “goods mined, produced, or manufactured” in Xinjiang are barred from importation to the United States. Exceptions to the ban include if “clear and convincing evidence” exists that an item was not produced “wholly or in part by forced labor.”

In his letter to Biden, Leatherwood said the ERLC is concerned the Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force, which was established in 2020, will craft guidelines that provide a “carve-out” for solar panels tainted by Uyghur slave labor and administration officials will pressure the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection to permit solar panels produced by forced labor into this country even if “clear and convincing” evidence does not exist to rebut it.

“It is absolutely essential that no unmerited exceptions be granted, and that the [UFLPA] be enforced to the fullest extent of the law,” Leatherwood wrote.

In his letter to leaders of both houses of Congress, Leatherwood called for them to include P-2 designation for both groups in the Bipartisan Innovation Act, an economic competitiveness measure under consideration.

“[W]e must not return Uyghurs and Hong Kongers to horrific situations of oppression,” he wrote. “By offering Priority 2 refugee status, our nation can demonstrate that this country is a safe haven for the persecuted and those whose human rights have been abused and whose religious freedom has been violated.”

Because of the 2020 law, China “has the power to use the same ‘security’ practices used in mainland China to punish and suppress dissent and unrest,” Leatherwood wrote. “This law puts political dissenters and people of faith in Hong Kong in danger and at risk of life in prison and perhaps extradition to the mainland.”

The CCP’s oppressive practices in Xinjiang include tracking Uyghur Muslims by means of a high-tech surveillance system that has obtained genetic data on many residents, according to reports. It is estimated more than one million of the 12 million Uyghurs, and maybe as many as three million, have been detained in “re-education” camps. Forced labor by prisoners is common. Life in the camps reportedly can result in indoctrination, as well as rape, torture and coercive organ harvesting. Uyghur women are also at the mercy of forced abortions and sterilizations.

According to a 1948 United Nations treaty, genocide is defined as murder and other acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”