Selective Sanctions help US Agricultural Inefficiencies

Jerry Grey
6 min readDec 12, 2021

Last year, the US Senate passed a Bill banning goods from Xinjiang, this Bill wasn’t enforceable until it passed through Congress, which it just did. Now, House of Representatives Bill H.R 6210[1] will be signed into law by Joe Biden and it means that all products with a connection to Xinjiang will be banned. This is not because forced labour can be proven but if there’s a single part of their production or manufacturing process that took place in Xinjiang, or confusingly; can’t be proven NOT to have taken place in Xinjiang.

A “Forced Labour Enforcement Task Force” has been set up to assess the available information, report strategies, provide guidelines and give advice on how border control, customs and importing companies can avoid Xinjiang products. What they won’t do is visit and ask questions inside of Xinjiang.

Nor will they ask questions of non-profit organisations such as Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) who, until recently, had offices and staff in Xinjiang for the sole purpose of advising and reporting to the cotton industry that products harvested in the region were not only sustainable but ethical too. And, after 8 years of doing so have never reported a single incident of forced labour, labour malpractice or anything else that might constitute cause for concern. The reason they no longer operate inside of Xinjiang is because the Chair of their organisation, Marc Lewkowitz[2], happens to also be the CEO of a massive US cotton brand called Supima.

Supima is the marketing organisation of a brand of American cotton called Pima, a direct competitor to the type of cotton grown in Xinjiang and, in a clear conflict of interest, current Chair, Marc Lewkowitz has instructed the staff in China to pull out of Xinjiang: “because of concerns”. Not because of evidence because there has never been any. It can’t be seen as a lucky coincidence that the sales of Pima cotton, which were declining have now rebounded.

Another organisation looking into Cotton production in Xinjiang, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, working with over 100,000 farmers as well as BCI and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) has never found any violation but, according to their 2020 statement have terminated their involvement — once again, not because they found anything wrong there, but because they haven’t found anything wrong and, “due to the operating environment preventing credible assurance…” probably never will; meaning that its getting too hard for them to find evidence of labour abuses, so they’ve stopped looking.

Bad news for Xinjiang Cotton farmers, many of whom were recently lifted out of poverty, means good news for US corporate cotton producers. Having managed to successfully block any imports from China, the world’s largest exporter of Cotton, their own projections look much better than before, according to the US Department of Agriculture[3] US cotton will pick up while China’s cotton, the vast majority of which comes from Xinjiang, will decline. Many in the USA must be congratulating themselves on a job well done.

At the same time that cotton was subjected to US trade restraints, something needed to be done about American tomato production. American tomatoes have struggled to maintain production rates and it’s quite apparent that the industry leaders would be worried about importation of good quality tomatoes when your recent trade figures start to look like the picture below.

Recent US Tomato production figures have rebounded now that MExico and Xinjiang are sanctioned

It’s equally apparent that the industry would need to do something about it. However, rather than improve production, find more efficient ways to cut costs and provide better products, farming lobbyists turned to the government to find ways to stop competition. The largest producers of tomatoes in the world are, in this order: China (mostly Xinjiang), the USA and Mexico[4].

Unsurprisingly, the USA have allegedly now found labour abuses in both Mexico[5] and Xinjiang[6] and restricted imports from both regions. Even less surprisingly, despite losses in California due to climate: floods; drought; fires and disease, the US Midwest in 2021 produced bumper crops[7] and US tomato production, according to their industry organisation, Tomato news, is back up where the lobbyists wanted it to be.

Amazingly, while the USA makes allegations of human rights abuses based around slave labour in the cotton industry, one of America’s largest agricultural machinery companies, John Deere, makes massive sales including an annual increase of 4,000% over one year to Xinjiang alone[8] of, you guessed it, cotton harvesting machines.

At the same time, global importers, retailers, producers and manufacturers spend lots of money on announced and unannounced audits and employing associations such as BCI to ensure they weren’t contributing the old adage that: where agriculture and poverty exist together, labour abuses are inevitable. To achieve this, they ask organisations such as BCI and the Sustainable Trade Initiative to investigate, which they did and still, despite all these audits and checks, no violations have been recorded.

We tend to think of allegations like these to be “third world or global south” issues but what’s really intriguing is that all these unproven allegations are going on against a backdrop of genuine, proven slave labour in the USA. Just this week (Dec. 2021), the Department of Justice announced an indictment against 24 people involved in slave labour and trafficking of humans to work on American farms[9].

Furthermore, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery, included some very interesting words[10]:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”

A very quick online search demonstrates that this “exclusion of slavery” is practiced widely to allow prisoners in many US states to be forced to work in medieval and feudal conditions.

As a final point, it’s worth noting that, while the sanctions against agricultural products from Xinjiang which serve to allow inefficient or expensive US products to reclaim the market, often by using the very working conditions they allege elsewhere, they fail to address one other very important point.

The sanctions are selective. They affect Chinese businesses but they don’t affect American businesses. It’s ok for American businesses continue to operate in Xinjiang. A quick walk around any of the cities will show that despite its remoteness, Xinjiang has not escaped the onslaught of American globalisation. Hilton and Sheraton Hotel chains have very large and very comfortable buildings employing thousands of people. Fast food outlets KFC and McDonalds are widely available and also employ many. In fact, according to one group of researchers[11], there are 53 American listed Fortune 500 companies operating in the region. They’re in agriculture, finance, retail, car hire, oil and gas. Actually there’s hardly an industry sector they aren’t in.

These companies operate inside of Xinjiang with impunity and without fear of sanctions because they know there are no abuses, if there were, they’d have seen them and reported them. They continue to operate because it’s profitable and the business environment it good. But, most importantly, unlike US agriculture, they don’t need to lobby their Senators to push for sanctions and trade barriers to prop up costly and inefficient businesses which really do exist in a proven and long-established environment of slave labour and human rights abuses called THe United States.














Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences