China’s Role in Child and Forced Labor in the Congo Explored At CECC Hearing

(Washington)— Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Chair and Cochair respectively of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), held a hearing this week looking at the dominance of Chinese companies in the cobalt mining industry of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and how the exploitation of child and forced labor in this sector in the DRC impacts a global supply chain dependent on cobalt for a range of modern products. At the hearing entitled “From Cobalt to Cars—How China Exploits Child and Forced Labor in the Congo,” Commissioners heard about the malign influence of Chinese mining companies in the DRC; the human and environmental toll of cobalt mining in the DRC, and the economic and national security implications of China’s dominance in the refining of cobalt. Around 70% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC and 41% of all batteries containing cobalt are imported from the People’s Republic of China. The Chairs were joined at the hearing by Commissioners Michelle Steel (R-CA), Andrea Salinas (D-OR), Ryan Zinke (R-MT), and Zach Nunn (R-IA).   

In his opening statement, CECC Chair Representative Chris Smith highlighted that “the biggest beneficiaries of this cobalt continue to remain silent and refuse to face this uncomfortable truth: From dirt to battery, from cobalt to cars, the entire system is fueled by violence, cruelty, and corruption… By ignoring these rights and by treating people including children as expendable, China is committing gross violations of human rights and is seeking to rewrite the international order—all while controlling the supply chains of this critical metal, cobalt…The United States has been asleep at the wheel for far too long and China has taken advantage of that. We need to provide alternative options—options that champion transparency, human rights, peace, and prosperity for all.”

CECC Cochair Senator Jeff Merkley said in his opening statement that “Chinese companies and the Chinese government directly profit from forced and child labor used to mine these minerals, extending their abusive practices across continents. And they supply American companies that produce products we use every day. American consumers deserve to be protected from becoming unwitting and unwilling accomplices in these abuses…both the Executive Branch and Congress have important roles to play to reduce and eliminate labor and other human rights abuses in DRC mining operations. Addressing these issues is an opportunity for the United States to lead the world in both clean, sustainable energy and in human rights.”

Eric Schultz, the former U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, said in his testimony that “The Chinese mean to freeze us out from African resources as best as they can and they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in this effort. And Africa’s resources are essential to next-generation economic growth, especially copper, rare earths, and cobalt. The Belt and Road Initiative, at least in Africa, is a transparent effort to gain the upper hand and assert dominion in Africa… China and Russia pose a systemic threat. They are allied against us and they mean to change the world order that we helped build. Africa is one of the key battlegrounds in this conflict. To win in Africa there are several things that we should and must do. To start with we need to acknowledge that it is a conflict. It is no longer acceptable to say that Chinese investment is simply filling in where the West was too timid or too biased to venture.”

Milos Ivkovic, an international arbitrator and adjunct professor at Washington University School of Law, testified that “in 2020, Chinese companies imported nearly 90% of their cobalt needs from the DRC. It is publicly known that at least eight of the fourteen largest cobalt mines in the DRC are controlled by Chinese companies, but the actual number is likely to be much higher. In addition, mainland China accounts for 80% of the world's cobalt refining capacity. While U.S. and European manufacturers may insist on implementing measures to ensure that every stage of production is free from intolerable human rights abuses, the reality of the monopolized supply chain, and the power behind it, makes it very difficult to actually achieve such an objective, at least not without concrete and aggressive action.”

Joseph Mulala Nguramo, a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in his testimony that “China and private sector ‘artisanal mining’ companies have taken advantage of the vulnerability of the Congolese population and found willing collaborators among the ranks of DRC government officials…We should work on reducing Chinese dominance in the DRC mining sector, while mitigating the global reliance on the Belt and Road Initiative by de-risking and diversifying our supply chain. Particularly, we must address the issues of child labor and corruption [by banning] goods made with child labor or forced labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo--to NOT enter the United States, Mexico, and Canada markets.”

Stavros Nicolas Niarchos, a freelance journalist whose work on mining and conflict in Africa has been published in the New Yorker and the Nation, testified that “I have seen how landscapes have been destroyed, water polluted and air filled with dust and carbon as mining companies rush to extract minerals like copper, cobalt, lithium and phosphates. Oftentimes, human rights abuses go hand-in-glove with these environmental catastrophes… We must also not forget the very real human rights abuses that attend the extraction of battery metals in the DRC. Children are brutalized, women are violated, and men are subject to wage slavery. Abuses of human rights happen at the bottom of the supply chain, but also to people who are trying to clarify what is happening in the supply chain.”

Recommendations for action by the U.S. Government and international community; additional statements by Commissioners, witness testimonies, and an archived hearing video can be found on the hearing webpage