Chinese goods made by an organization linked to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang may have made their way to US stores and consumers, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is a vast governmental and paramilitary organization with interests in many industries, and it administers some of the mass internment camps and prisons where Muslim minorities are confined. BuzzFeed News found last month that China had built the capacity to imprison more than 1 million people in the region at any given moment.
The Chinese government has framed the detention drive in the past as a professional development or education program intended to ward off threats to social stability. But the US and other governments have called it a genocide. Last July the US placed sanctions on the organization, known as the XPCC or bingtuan in Chinese, as well as two officials associated with it, citing “their connection to serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.”
The move effectively made it illegal for anyone in the US to do business with XPCC and made it more difficult for the organization to work with other countries, too. But new research from a Washington, DC–based nonprofit shows that the XPCC’s many subsidiaries continue to export goods all over the world. The report found that some of the consumer items made with those products, such as tomato sauce or textiles, are sold in the United States as well as to other countries like Australia, Canada, and Germany.
C4ADS, a group that reports on global conflict and security, identified 2,923 subsidiaries of the XPCC and used business filings, 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 shipments of tomato paste.
The report uncovered companies that buy goods from Xinjiang and send products elsewhere, but trade data does not make clear whether specific banned items arrived in the US. It’s therefore difficult to know whether the same tomatoes imported from Xinjiang were then sent on to the US, but it’s clear that Kubanochka’s branded tomato products are sold in the United States, including in international food stores. Grand Star did not respond to a request for comment.
C4ADS also found that at least three XPCC subsidiary companies sell XPCC cotton despite being part of the Better Cotton Initiative, a global industry accreditation program that says it promotes ethical sourcing of cotton products. The Better Cotton Initiative declined to comment about whether these companies’ activities conflict with its principles.
One of the three subsidiaries, Xiamen ITG, is a supply chain management company worth 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 supply company that has also provided protective equipment to hospitals. Xiamen ITG sent two shipments of polyester and cotton fabric to MMI in 2019, trade data shows, before the US began blocking Xinjiang cotton. Asked about the shipments, MMI Textiles’ chief operating officer, Nick Rivera, said it stopped working with the firm in January 2019 and that MMI was “troubled to learn of the details which you described in your inquiry.”
Founded in 1954 — just five years after the ruling Communist Party took power in China — the XPCC originally focused on resettling Han Chinese migrants in the Xinjiang region, which is the historical home of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minority groups. 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 farming to television and radio. The XPCC has thousands of subsidiaries and makes up to 21% of the region’s production, including through manufacturing.
“The XPCC is a primary perpetrator of mass detentions and forced labor in Xinjiang, and it has a massive economic footprint,” said Irina Bukharin, the lead researcher for the C4ADS report. “It’s also sanctioned, so understanding how it’s still connected to the global economy is important for understanding how sanctions and other measures targeting forced labor in the region are falling short.”
US Customs and Border Protection in January said it would detain all tomato and cotton products imported from Xinjiang. C4ADS found, however, that both kinds of products could be making it to the United States including by traveling through third countries. The XPCC is the largest producer of cotton in China and is also a major player in the tomato industry.
Detaining shipments from the region is not always a clear-cut process, in part because XPCC companies often sell their products through middle companies in other parts of China or other countries. Ana Hinojosa, a Customs and Border Protection official, told BuzzFeed News that the difficulty of getting information about companies in Xinjiang presented a challenge for US regulators.
“The XPCC is a behemoth of an organization. It has so many subsidiaries, and they shift and change frequently,” said Hinojosa, who is CBP’s executive director for trade remedy law enforcement. “It is a difficult task to keep track of them.”
“I think that there are probably some goods that are coming to the US that we’re not aware yet that they’re connected to the XPCC,” she added.
The XPCC did not respond to requests for comment.