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House OKs a bill barring imports of goods produced by forced labor of Uyghurs in China

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., touted her work over decades advocating for human rights in China as the House considered legislation to impose economic sanctions for goods produced in internment camps by ethnic Muslims.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., touted her work over decades advocating for human rights in China as the House considered legislation to impose economic sanctions for goods produced in internment camps by ethnic Muslims.

The House of Representatives has approved legislation imposing economic sanctions on China for goods sold to Americans from the forced labor of Muslim Uyghurs.

The Wednesday vote was overwhelming, 428-1.

"This is not a partisan issue. It is a human rights issue. It is a moral issue," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the sponsor of the bill and a longtime human rights advocate, said on the House floor.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would ban imports produced by ethnic Muslims in the internment camps in northwest China.

The issue is a rare one that unites House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Bipartisan, bicameral push to inflict economic pain

The issue came to the forefront last week, when Rubio stalled action on the annual defense bill because his measure wasn't allowed as an amendment to that must-pass legislation. He supported House passage Wednesday.

A day before the vote the Florida Republican told reporters in the Capitol, "I guarantee, as I speak to you now, everyone in this building owns something that was made by a slave in Xinjiang and most people don't know that."

Rubio stressed the legislation moving through Congress has better enforcement than the current ban that's been in place for decades.

"This is a bill that says if products are made in that part of China they are presumed to have been made by slave labor unless the manufacturer can prove it wasn't," he explained.

Rubio partnered with McGovern on the effort and both expect it to move this session of Congress. McGovern noted the House passed essentially the same bill last year, but the then GOP-controlled Senate didn't take it up. "It's time for us to get this done."

McGovern told NPR that if enacted, the legislation means consumers will be reassured that clothes or food they purchase from China aren't tainted.

"I don't think any American wants to buy anything that was produced by people being forced to do something in internment camps," he said.

He added, "We like to say 'never again' when we talk about genocide, and here it's happening. And those who oppose the bill are basically saying we need to look the other way. But that's not right. We have a moral obligation to change the status quo."

Back and forth over administration's position

Rubio told reporters earlier this week corporate interests are pressuring the Biden administration to oppose the bill. He released a statement on Wednesday repeating that claim and added about the administration, it is "already working to complicate things here in the Senate."

But State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday, "We do not oppose this. We are not lobbying against it." Price maintained that the administration "has perhaps done more than any administration and really galvanized the international community to put a spotlight on what has taken place in Xinjiang."

Rubio has also said he heard John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, has discouraged some lawmakers from moving the bill over concerns about the impact on talks with China.

A State Department spokesperson told NPR that was false: "Secretary Kerry has a 37-year record as a senator and secretary of state standing up for human rights and defending democracy. As Secretary Kerry has said from the start, the United States and China have mutual interests in solving the climate crisis while there's still time, even when we fundamentally disagree on other critical issues."

Pelosi has made speaking out against the Chinese government a focus in her 30-year career. She bristled at the notion she would slow walk this legislation when asked last week about any pressure campaign from the administration.

"I take second place to no one in the Congress of the United States in my criticism of China," she said.

McGovern says the Biden administration's diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in Beijing, announced earlier this week, shows the U.S. is making headway on showing the world it won't turn a blind eye to any atrocities in China.

He also stressed this wasn't about targeting Chinese people, but the government. "This is not, you know, a knee-jerk, anti-China bill. This is about trying to persuade China to change their behavior, to stop the genocide."

The bill now heads to the Senate, but it's unclear when the chamber will take it up.

The White House hasn't said whether the president backs the bill, but added he shares concerns about forced labor in the Xinjiang region.

Asked whether the president is committed to signing the legislation if the Senate ultimately approves it and sends it to him, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill told NPR that the speaker "is confident that the Congress will pass strong, overwhelmingly bipartisan final legislation."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.