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Export data from Xinjiang has vanished from China's monthly economic reports

Cotton packed for trade in Xinjiang, China.
Cotton packed for trade in Xinjiang, China.

China, accused of using forced labor in the fields and factories of Xinjiang, has scrubbed export data for the region from its monthly economic report. The disappearance of the detailed trade data comes in the wake of a US ban on Xinjiang exports that went into effect in June.

The US’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) assumes that all products made in Xinjiang uses forced labor and says they cannot be brought into the US unless the company importing the goods can prove otherwise. The ban also applies to goods produced elsewhere in China using products sourced from Xinjiang, like cotton.

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When the ban took effect, China responded angrily, denying the use of forced labor and accusing the US of attacking its economy as well as its “dignity.”

Researchers told Nikkei Asia, a Tokyo-based outlet, that disappearing and misleading data has made it difficult to track how goods move from Xinjiang. Further disappearance could complicate the enforcement of the ban.

US ramps up border enforcement

An August 2022 report by the UN says abuses by Chinese authorities against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang could amount to crimes against humanity.

The US ban on products from the region, along with an EU version proposed in September, has the potential to transform trade from Xinjiang and beyond—and reshape how China produces its goods. But without Chinese government data, it will be hard to know exactly how much the US border enforcement is affecting Xinjiang’s output.

Meanwhile, the US Customs and Border Patrol has begun enforcing the ban on a narrow set of high priority products, including cotton, tomatoes, and polysilicon, used to make solar panels.

China’s data is disappearing as its economic indicators worsen

During China’s economic boom years, the government published some 80,000 time series creating a highly detailed picture in data of the country’s decades-long economic miracle.

In recent hard times, China has developed a pattern of hiding data to obscure bad news. In October, China did not release its quarterly GDP, though analysis of available indicators suggested a number as little as half the government’s target.

While the obfuscation of Xinjiang’s trade data makes it difficult to draw a clear picture of the impact of the US forced labor ban, it’s unlikely that what China is obscuring is success.

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