Chinese goods made by an organization linked to a mass arrest of Muslims in Xinjiang may have gone to U.S. stores and consumers, according to a report released Tuesday.
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is a vast government and militia organization with interests in many industries, and it manages some of the mass prisons and prisons where Muslim minorities are locked up. BuzzFeed News found last month that China had built the capacity to imprison more than 1 million people in the region at any one time.
The Chinese government has framed the prisoner journey in the past as a professional development or education program aimed at repelling threats to social stability. But the United States and other governments have called it genocide. Last July the United States imposed sanctions on the organization, known as the XPCC or bingtuan in Chinese, as well as two officials associated with it, citing “their relationship to serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
The move effectively made it illegal for anyone in the United States to do business with XPCC and made it more difficult for the organization to work with other countries, as well. But new Washington-based nonprofit research shows that the many branches of XPCC continue to export goods all over the world. The report found that some of the consumables made with these products, such as tomato sauce or textiles, are sold in the United States as well as to other countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany.
C4ADS, a group that reports on global conflict and security, identified 2,923 subsidiaries of the XPCC and used business files, business records and posters on a Chinese cotton industry retail store 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 subsidiaries of XPCC, Xinjiang Guannong Tomato Products and Xinjiang Wanda Co., sent Grand Star more than 150 shipments of tomato paste.
The report uncovered companies that buy goods from Xinjiang and ship products elsewhere, but trade data is unclear whether specific banned items arrived in the United States. It is therefore difficult to know whether the same tomatoes imported from Xinjiang were then shipped to the United States, but it is clear that the branded Kubanochka tomatoes are sold in the United States, including in international grocery stores. Grand Star did not respond to a request for comment.
C4ADS has also found that at least three XPCC affiliated companies sell XPCC cotton despite being part of the Better Cotton Initiative, a global industry accreditation program that says it promotes an ethical source of cotton products. The Better Cotton Initiative declined to comment on whether the activities of those companies conflict with its principles.
One of the three subsidiaries, Xiamen ITG, is a supply chain management company with a value of nearly 14 billion yuan. According to government business data compiled by Panjiva, Xiamen ITG and its own subsidiaries supplied small and large North American retailers, including Walmart Canada and an Ohio-based company called MMI Textiles, a military supply company that also provided protective equipment to hospitals. Xiamen ITG sent two shipments of polyester and cotton fabric to MMI in 2019, trade data show, before the United States began blocking Xinjiang cotton. Asked about the shipments, MMI Textiles chief Nick Rivera said it stopped working with the company in January 2019 and that MMI was “anxious to learn about the details you described in your survey.”
Founded in 1954 – just five years after Alberta’s ruling Communist Party came to power in China – the XPCC originally focused on resettling Han Chinese migrants in the Xinjiang region, which is the historic home of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities. About 86% of current XPCC members are Han Chinese, according to research published by Yajun Bao at the University of Oxford. The XPCC is so powerful that Bao and other scholars have described it as having a parallel role to the Xinjiang regional government, with interests ranging from cotton cultivation to television and radio. The XPCC has thousands of subsidiaries and makes up to 21% of the region’s production, including through production.
“The XPCC is a major perpetrator of mass arrests and forced labor in Xinjiang, and it has a massive economic footprint,” said Irina Bukharin, the lead researcher for the C4ADS report. “It is also sanctioned, so understanding how it is still tied to the global economy is important to understand how sanctions and other measures aimed at forced labor in the region are lacking.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection in January said it would retain all tomato and cotton products imported from Xinjiang. C4ADS found, however, that both types of products could make it to the United States including travel through third countries. The XPCC is the largest producer of cotton in China and is also a major player in the tomato industry.
Stopping shipments from the region is not always a clear process, in part because XPCC companies often sell their products through medium-sized companies in other parts of China or other countries. Ana Hinojosa, an official on Customs and Border Protection, told BuzzFeed News that the difficulty in obtaining information about companies in Xinjiang posed a challenge for U.S. regulators.
“The XPCC is a giant of an organization. It has so many affiliates, and they change and change often,” said Hinojosa, who is CBP’s executive director for commercial medical laws. “It’s a difficult task to keep track of them.”
“I think there are probably some goods coming to the U.S. that we are not yet aware of being connected to the XPCC,” she added.
The XPCC did not respond to requests for comment.