More than 33,000 Laptops Meant For Alabama Schools Held by Customs Over ‘Human Rights Dispute’

August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

More than 30,000 laptops headed to Alabama schools for use in distance learning programs this fall have been halted by U.S. customs officials, reportedly over a human rights dispute, according to local officials.

Some $1.3 million worth of computer equipment is currently being held and some may not make their way to school districts until October, according to Ryan Hollingsworth, the director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, which represents the superintendents of all of the state’s 138 school districts.

Speaking to AL.com, Hollingsworth didn’t elaborate on which specific human rights dispute was holding up the items. However, late last month, the U.S. Commerce Department added 11 Chinese companies to its economic blacklist, citing their involvement in human rights violations and abuses in the western region of Xinjiang.

Local officials are reportedly discussing the matter with both of the state’s U.S. senators, Doug Jones (D) and Richard Shelby (R), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.).

“We’re going to begin as safely as we can with as many protective measures as possible,” Etowah County School Superintendent Alan Cosby told the news outlet. “This is just something we didn’t anticipate.”

Cosby said Etowah County, which is due to start classes for students on Aug. 17, had been expecting roughly 4,000 Chromebook computers this week, but they have now been held back until late September or early October. The equipment, he said, was meant for use by pupils wishing to resume classes both in-person and online.

“It’s just one more obstacle to overcome as we begin the school year,” he said.

On July 20, the Commerce Department said the 11 Chinese firms were implicated in helping the Chinese communist regime in its “campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, involuntary collection of biometric data, and genetic analyses targeted at Muslim minority groups.”

These companies were added to the U.S. entity list, which bans their access to American goods, including commodities and technology, unless they get approval from the U.S. government.

The new list includes nine companies that are involved in using Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups as forced labor.

Among them is Nanchang O-Film Tech, supplier of nearly two dozen tech and automotive companies, including Amazon, Apple, Dell, General Motors, and Microsoft.

Another company is Changji Esquel Textile Co, founded by the Esquel Group, a Chinese textile manufacturing company that produces clothing for Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, and Patagonia.

Four companies included in the entity list in connection with the practice of forced labor—Nanchang O-Film, Hefei Meiling Co., KTK Group, and Tanyuan—are listed on the Chinese stock exchange.

In addition, two companies—Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI—were added to the entity list for their role in “conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.”

In response, China’s s foreign ministry accused the White House of attempting to “suppress Chinese companies, undermine the stability of Xinjiang, and smear China’s Xinjiang policies.”

At least 83 famous global brands have been tied to forced labor in China, in the technology, clothing, and automotive industries, including Apple, Acer, BMW, Gap, Google, Nike, and Samsung, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The report released in March estimated that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were sent to factories across China between 2017 and 2019.

Emel Akan contributed to this report.