Chinese goods manufactured by an organization linked to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang may have found their way into US stores and consumers, according to a report released Tuesday.
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is a huge government and paramilitary organization with interests in many industries and manages some of the mass internment camps and prisons where Muslim minorities are incarcerated. BuzzFeed News found out last month that China has built the capacity to detain more than 1 million people in the area at any one time.
The Chinese government has historically described the detention operations as a professional training or education program designed to ward off threats to social stability. But the US and other governments have labeled it genocide. Last July, the US imposed sanctions on the organization, known in Chinese as XPCC or Bingtuan, and two related officials, citing “its links to serious human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
The move made it illegal for anyone in the US to do business with XPCC and made it difficult for the organization to do business with other countries as well. However, new research by a Washington DC-based nonprofit shows that XPCC’s many subsidiaries continue to export goods around the world. The report found that some of the consumer goods made with these products, such as tomato sauce or textiles, are sold in the United States as well as other countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany.
C4ADS, a global conflict and security reporting group, identified 2,923 XPCC subsidiaries and used business records, trade records and postings on a Chinese cotton industry trading site to investigate their business activities.
The group found that a Russian company called Grand Star makes tomato products and sauces under the brand name Kubanochka. Two XPCC subsidiaries, Xinjiang Guannong Tomato Products and Xinjiang Wanda Co., have sent Grand Star more than 150 deliveries of tomato paste.
The report exposed companies buying goods from Xinjiang and shipping products elsewhere, but trade data does not make it clear whether certain prohibited items have arrived in the United States. It is therefore difficult to say whether the tomatoes imported from Xinjiang were also sent to the USA, but it is clear that the branded tomato products from Kubanochka are sold in the USA, including in international grocery stores. Grand Star did not respond to a request for comment.
C4ADS also found that at least three XPCC subsidiaries sell XPCC cotton despite being part of the Better Cotton Initiative, a global industry accreditation program that promotes ethical sourcing of cotton products. The Better Cotton Initiative did not want to comment on whether these companies’ activities were against their principles.
One of the three subsidiaries, Xiamen ITG, is a supply chain management company valued at nearly 14 billion yuan. According to government trade data compiled by Panjiva, Xiamen ITG and its own subsidiaries have supplied small and large North American retailers including Walmart Canada and an Ohio-based company called MMI Textiles, a military utility that has also supplied protective equipment to hospitals. Xiamen ITG sent two shipments of polyester and cotton fabrics to MMI in 2019, trade data shows, before the US started blocking Xinjiang cotton. When asked about the deliveries, Nick Rivera, Chief Operating Officer of MMI Textiles said that the relationship with the company ended in January 2019 and that MMI “was concerned to learn of the details you described in your request.”
Established in 1954 – just five years after the ruling Communist Party came to power in China – the XPCC originally focused on the resettlement of Han Chinese migrants in the Xinjiang region, the historic home of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. About 86% of current XPCC members are Han Chinese, according to a study published by Yajun Bao at Oxford University. So powerful is the XPCC that Bao and other scholars have attributed it to a parallel role with the Xinjiang regional government, whose interests range from cotton growing to television and radio. The XPCC has thousands of subsidiaries and accounts for up to 21% of the region’s production, including manufacturing.
“The XPCC is a major contributor to mass arrests and forced labor in Xinjiang and has a massive economic footprint,” said Irina Bukharin, senior researcher on the C4ADS report. “It’s sanctioned too, so understanding how it is still linked to the global economy is essential to understand how sanctions and other measures against forced labor fail in the region.”
The US Customs and Border Protection announced in January that it would detain all tomato and cotton products imported from Xinjiang. However, C4ADS noted that both types of products could enter the United States, including through travel through third countries. The XPCC is the largest cotton producer in China and also a major player in the tomato industry.
Withholding shipments from the region isn’t always a straightforward process, in part because XPCC companies often sell their products through medium-sized companies in other parts of China or other countries. Ana Hinojosa, a customs and border protection officer, told BuzzFeed News that the difficulty of obtaining information about companies in Xinjiang is a challenge for US regulators.
“The XPCC is an organization giant. It has so many affiliates and they move and change frequently, ”said Hinojosa, CBP’s Executive Director for Commercial Means Enforcement. “It is a difficult job to keep track of things.”
“I think there are likely some goods coming into the US that we don’t yet know are linked to the XPCC,” she added.
The XPCC did not respond to requests for comment.