When Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the US on Jan. 20, he will inherit a number of thorny problems. Among them is how to confront China about its systematic oppression of the predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in the country’s northwest Xinjiang region. The growing consensus is it constitutes genocide, a label Biden himself has applied to the situation.
The US has taken steps to address the situation under current president Donald Trump, sanctioning Chinese firms and drafting the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would block certain goods made in Xinjiang from entering the country. The bill passed in the House in September but would still need passage in the Senate and Biden’s signature before it becomes law.
The fashion industry is watching these moves closely. Xinjiang is the epicenter of China’s giant cotton industry, producing around 20% of the world’s cotton according to one common estimate. For years watchdogs have warned of Chinese authorities pressing Uyghurs into forced labor throughout Xinjiang, leading to allegations of forced labor tainting the supply chains of well-known companies such as Nike as well as clothing trickling into the US. It’s not clear how much clothing sold in the US is made with cotton from Xinjiang, but China accounted for roughly one-third of the dollar value of clothing and textiles imported into the US in 2019.