How Congress Rallied Against Oppression in Xinjiang
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was a rare—and messy—bipartisan success.
This piece is an excerpt from the Dispatch’s five-part series on the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Read it here.
This piece is an excerpt from the Dispatch’s five-part series on the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Read it here.
You probably own something made with Uyghur forced labor.
Since 2014, the Chinese government has forcibly detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic Muslim minorities in concentration camps in Xinjiang. These camps—and the larger region, which is now a suffocating police state built around advanced surveillance technology—are home to unspeakable horrors, according to survivors. The Chinese government has subjected Uyghurs to forced abortions and mass forced sterilizations, slashing birth rates. Chinese officials methodically stamp out religion and tradition, aiming to instill reverence for President Xi Jinping in their stead.
Xinjiang has a massive role in the global economy, particularly in textiles. The region produces 85 percent of Chinese cotton, one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply. Its energy industry is also large. Estimates indicate nearly half of the globe’s polysilicon, a material required for manufacturing solar cells, came from Xinjiang in 2020.
In 2018 and 2019, reporting from journalists and researchers began to reveal the sprawling scope of the Chinese government’s use of forced labor in Xinjiang, touching some of the largest brands in the world. As the evidence mounted, American lawmakers itched to respond. By late 2019, members of Congress felt it was time to shore up the United States’ longtime ban on importing products made with forced labor and prevent American dollars from contributing to the Chinese government’s genocide. But it was going to be an uphill battle.
Three weeks before the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2021, human rights advocates were convinced the bill was almost dead.
Nothing indicated it was going to move in the House. The White House had made no assurances that President Joe Biden would support it, and officials signaled publicly and privately in the opposite direction. Plus, corporate resistance remained strong.
“It’s pretty clear that the White House didn’t want this thing moving at the time, until it became unavoidable,” Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.
In early December and until the bill became law later that month, Rubio worked to make the issue too toxic to ignore. He used one of the only leverage points available: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), one of the most important bills Congress considers each year. Rubio’s move to delay passage of the defense bill set off intense public scrutiny and removed ambiguity about the White House’s position, sparking quick talks to reconcile the two chambers’ versions of the bill before year’s end.
Rubio describes the decision to hold up the NDAA as uncomfortable. “It’s something I’ve long supported and voted for,” he said.
But it gave him a key procedural advantage. Even if it didn’t result in the forced labor bill being added to the defense package as he wanted, he reasoned it would lead to more questions being asked about why the legislation hadn’t passed the House that year.
“If we hadn’t done it, this bill wouldn’t have passed,” he said.
Rubio attempted in mid-November 2021 to get the forced labor bill added to the defense package as part of the slate of amendments the Senate would adopt. The new version of the bill, proposed during the NDAA talks alongside Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, had a shortened period for implementation—down to 180 days from the Senate’s earlier 300 days—because, after all, Congress’s inaction that year had given businesses most of 2021 to prepare for it. But Democratic leaders in the Senate rejected Rubio’s request. The House Ways and Means Committee, they told him, was saying the forced labor bill generated too much revenue, which would cause procedural problems when the defense package went to the House for final passage.
The Constitution requires that all bills for raising revenue originate in the House, not the Senate. House lawmakers guard this prerogative jealously. (Senators from both parties think the House guards it too jealously.) This perennial standoff between the two chambers is known as a blue slip issue.
The Senate sponsors of the forced labor bill, aware of reluctance to proceed among top administration officials, suspected the blue slip complaint wasn’t the real reason behind Democratic leadership’s pushback.
“This bill doesn’t have a blue slip problem,” Rubio said on the Senate floor in November. “It has a ‘bunch of corporations who are making stuff in Xinjiang province’ problem.”
On Dec. 1, Democratic leaders thought they had found a path forward to advance the defense bill. They would allow a Senate vote on Rubio’s forced labor amendment as one of 24 various amendment votes. But this wasn’t a real victory. The process was structured so it would only be a show vote. Of the amendments that would get floor consideration, Democratic leaders singled out the forced labor bill. In an email to offices seeking consent to go ahead with the plan, they indicated Rubio’s amendment would not actually be included in the final manager’s package version of the defense bill, even if the amendment vote succeeded. It would be added to the existing text of the bill, which was going to be completely replaced at the end of the process. It wouldn’t move to the House or have a chance to become law. It would only put senators on the record about a bill they had already passed by a voice vote months earlier.
Rubio wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to see genuine progress on the legislation. That night, when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed attempted to move forward with the amendment votes via unanimous consent, Rubio objected. Under the Senate rules, any one senator can block such a request.
Rubio’s decision frustrated many of his colleagues. He was slowing down an already beleaguered process as lawmakers were itching to finish work for the year. Others were more understanding. Rubio said he spoke with the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, about his decision to hold up the defense package. Rubio emphasized his respect for the work that goes into the annual defense bill, but, “I explained to them, look, this is a key issue. This is the leverage that I have.”
Inhofe wasn’t pleased, but he wasn’t angry, either, Rubio remembers.
“This wasn’t a petty parochial issue,” Rubio said. “This is a major issue.” He had to weigh whether the stand would make a difference in the end: Objecting to unanimous consent requests and bogging down the Senate’s work too often can earn a lawmaker a reputation as a contrarian that can hinder the work of getting bills passed.
Rubio didn’t have a change of heart, though. Instead, his fears about the Biden administration’s position on the forced labor bill only solidified. The night after Rubio objected to the NDAA plan, on Dec. 2, journalist Josh Rogin published a Washington Post column headlined “Congress needs to act on Xi Jinping’s genocide now.” Human rights activists and Uyghur advocates interviewed for this story overwhelmingly point to Rogin’s piece as a pivotal moment for the legislation. According to his reporting, Biden administration officials had been quietly telling lawmakers to slow down on the forced labor bill.
News stories about the Biden team’s reluctance had been floating around for months, but Rogin had new, well-sourced specifics, and it added to the pressure campaign Rubio was pursuing in the Senate. In an October call between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Merkley, Rogin reported, “Sherman made it clear that the administration prefers a more targeted and deliberative approach to determining which goods are the products of forced labor.”
The concerns Sherman reportedly raised in that call weren’t minor. The more targeted and deliberative approach she was suggesting went against the primary goal of the bill: encouraging companies to get out of Xinjiang. Anything other than a regional ban, with the option for exceptions in the case of clear and convincing evidence against forced labor, would have given corporations more room to shirk their responsibilities to rid supply chains of forced labor. Human rights groups didn’t have to look far for evidence bolstering Rogin’s story.
Merkley was indeed on the other end of administration pushback. The same night Rogin’s piece came out, Bloomberg’s Daniel Flatley published comments he got from Merkley during a Senate subway ride earlier that week about what he had been hearing from administration officials. There was some “hesitancy” on the Biden administration’s part, Merkley confirmed, and “I disagree with it.”
Now the campaign among some factions of the administration to water down the forced labor bill was fully in the open. Top House Democrats publicly promised a quick vote on their version of the measure, signaling an end in sight for the nearly two-year effort.
Until the bill was finalized, Rubio’s team, human rights advocates, policy experts, and Rogin continued to dominate the online discussion about it, maintaining pressure on Democrats to get it done.
When House Democrats pledged during that first week of December to move on the bill, Rubio remained skeptical. After all the hurdles the legislation had met, taking assurances at face value was difficult.
His rhetoric would spark frustration among Democrats with strong records on human rights who found themselves lumped into a soft-on-China narrative about the party. Those tensions near the end didn’t kill the bill, though. In private, congressional aides would soon begin hashing out the version of the measure that would ultimately become law.
On Dec. 8, the House held a vote for the first time in the 117th Congress on its version of the forced labor bill. Members passed it with an overwhelming tally of 428-1, even stronger than the vote the year prior. Its passage should have been a moment of victory for the bill’s supporters, but the situation remained fraught.
Shortly after the vote, Rubio, other Republican lawmakers, Rogin, and other China policy voices claimed Democrats had approved it in the House just to keep up appearances.
“They only passed it to say they did something,” Rogin tweeted on Dec. 8. “This is the McGovern bill. The House already passed it last year. There is no plan to reconcile it with the Senate bill by Rubio and Merkley. It’s just an alibi, unfortunately. Biden admin told [Democrats] not to send it to his desk. Sad.”
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern responded the next morning, pointing out that Senate Republicans had held up the bill in 2020.
“We’re already working w/ Rubio’s office to reconcile bills, just ask them,” he said. “House bill has some stronger parts. We will get it to Biden’s desk.”
After the House version passed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t send it to the Senate. Out of dozens of bills passed the same day, the forced labor measure was the only one Democratic leaders withheld. Republicans sounded alarms, anxious that Democrats were stalling the measure and sending it into legislative purgatory. Democrats said they were trying to reach a final compromise version with the Senate that they would advance.
On Dec. 9, Rubio tweeted about Pelosi holding up the bill.
The White House and corporate interests that opposed it “aren’t going to give up that easy,” he said.
Given everything that had unfolded since the legislation’s introduction, healthy paranoia about whether the bill would actually pass was valid. But Rubio’s tweets came after serious negotiations for a compromise bill were already underway, according to people from both parties who were involved in the talks. His rhetoric wasn’t constructive as aides worked through the legislative text.
Others joined the messaging: House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, for one, tweeted, “Why is Speaker Pelosi dragging her feet? What does the Chinese Communist Party have on her?”
Democrats still have a bitter taste in their mouths from this time.
“It just disregards her lifetime of advocacy on behalf of human rights,” McGovern, a major proponent of the bill, said of the attacks on Pelosi. “This would not have happened without her. … She made it clear to me, and we told her, that we were in negotiations with Rubio—while he was, you know, kicking the shit out of her—that we were in negotiations with Rubio to get to a deal that they can accept, so we don’t have to have a back-and-forth.”
When asked about his pointed rhetoric even while his office was negotiating with McGovern’s, Rubio said, “McGovern wanted it passed,” and he knew Pelosi couldn’t sit on it indefinitely.
Rubio’s deputy chief of staff, Dan Holler, added that Rubio’s public comments were intended to apply maximum pressure; he wasn’t taking anything for granted.
Rubio and McGovern both now point to the House and Senate’s ceaseless wrangling over revenue authorities as one reason behind Pelosi’s delay in sending the bill over to the other chamber. Some House members feared that if they sent what they deemed a revenue-generating bill to the Senate without assurances from that chamber’s leaders about the process, it could present an opportunity for senators to “tag on whatever they want and send it back,” Rubio said.
“There was some of that going on.”
Behind the scenes, congressional aides were quietly negotiating a new version of the bill over phone calls and emails. This was the final sprint, and it was messy. Staffers pulled together a bill on an accelerated timeline. Lawmakers were wrapping up their work for the year, and a holiday recess was quickly approaching. Swift action would be needed if they were going to get it done. By the evening of Friday, Dec. 10, House leadership’s plans were clear: Congressional staff would work through the weekend with the aim of finishing the text and putting an agreement on the House floor for passage on Tuesday, Dec. 14. One senior House aide said the legislative text came together so quickly, he was surprised Congress didn’t have to pass technical corrections to it afterward.
The aides met their deadline. On Tuesday, Dec. 14, the House approved the compromise bill by voice vote. After more than two years of work crafting the bill, introducing it, building support for it, and moving it through both chambers at different times, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was on the verge of becoming law at last. It was an emotional moment for the congressional staffers who helped write the legislation.
“You’re sitting there, you’re working your ass off to pass a bill you wish you never had to do,” a senior House aide said, speaking anonymously because they weren’t authorized to talk to press. “To be able to pass a major human rights law that had such a broad coalition had a good feeling in itself. Can we build on that? I really, really hope we can. Can we bring this to other countries, can we bring it to other issues in China? I hope we can.”
But the fact the bill had to be written in the first place “just sucks. It just sucks.”
Haley Byrd Wilt is an associate editor for The Dispatch. She previously reported on Congress for CNN and The Weekly Standard.
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