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Shein shopping bags
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Shein Is Aggressively Lobbying a Very Skeptical D.C.

“We’re just not buying what they’re putting down,” said one House aide.

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to the Biden administration in April asking for an investigation into Shein, the fast-fashion company that, in the senator’s view, is doing gangbusters business selling clothes made in China in no small part by skirting tariffs and anti-forced labor laws.

Like several other China hawks, Rubio has been publicly lambasting Shein for months — but this time, the company appeared to heed his concerns in a very Washington way: Shein hired Rubio’s former chief of staff as a lobbyist just six days after the letter was sent.

It was the first in a series of high-power hires for the $64 billion company, which is trying to go public on the American stock exchange amid scrutiny from lawmakers like Rubio. In the last month, Shein has hired 10 new lobbyists, including top Trump ally Brian Ballard, significant muscle on top of an already-powerful political team it began building in 2022.

The hires show how Shein is working to burnish its image in Washington at a crucial moment. The company has courted lawmakers in a hearts-and-minds campaign that included sending both Chairman Donald Tang and Vice Chairman Marcelo Claure to Washington last fall and winter to meet with critics and try to dissuade their concerns, according to Capitol Hill staff and lawmakers.

But behind closed doors, Shein’s emissaries have repeatedly claimed that Washington’s concerns are mistaken, a stance that irked lawmakers and reminded several people of another foreign company whose multimillion-dollar lobbying effort triggered blowback: TikTok.

“We’re just not buying what they’re putting down,” said one House aide whose boss has met with Shein officials. “And I don’t understand the political advice these people are getting because there is nothing that unites both sides of the aisle right now like China.”

Asked about the new hires, a Shein spokesperson said there has been no change in strategy and that the company has “significantly increased” its head count across the country since 2022, when it first started lobbying.

“We are committed to open and increasingly frequent dialogue to tell the story of our unique business model, our commitment to compliance and the delight of our customers,” the Shein spokesperson said. “As we continue to invest significantly in the U.S., SHEIN must participate in the political process at the federal, state and local government levels to act in the best interest of our customers and employees.”

Pushback against Shein is building. American manufacturers have launched a campaign to close the tariff loophole, called de minimis, that exempts packages valued at less than $800 from tariffs, benefiting companies like Shein. More than 20 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter last year to Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler asking the SEC to mandate Shein “certify via independent verification” that it does not use Uyghur forced labor to make its goods.

“SHEIN is aggressively raising capital and plans to execute an IPO before the end of this calendar year,” the lawmakers wrote. “We strongly believe that the ability to issue and trade securities on our domestic exchanges is a privilege, and that foreign companies wishing to do so must uphold a demonstrated commitment to human rights across the globe.”

Tang sat down last fall with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who sponsored a bill to close the de minimis loophole. According to critics, de minimis undermines American manufacturers and, because de minimis packages aren’t subject to the same scrutiny as larger shipments, allows goods made with forced labor into the U.S.

Tang said Blumenauer should not worry: Shein does not rely on de minimis for its success, he told the congressman, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Shein is successful because it can mass-produce trendy clothing items and sell them so quickly, he argued.

Tang’s argument did little to change Blumenauer’s mind. U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimated that 1 billion packages from Shein entered the country under de minimis in 2022, and that number appears to have increased since.

Shein is particularly concerning to lawmakers after a Bloomberg report traced cotton in Shein clothes to the Xinjiang region of China, where China allegedly uses forced Uyghur labor.

Shein has said, both publicly and to lawmakers, that it has rectified the situation by hiring an independent company to review its supply chain. The company, Oritain, has screened Shein products and found that 1.7% tested positive for cotton from “unapproved” regions, which is significantly less than the average Oritain works with. Lawmakers and critics, including groups representing American manufacturers, argue that Shein is screening too few garments and needs to take more steps to show that it is not using Uyghur labor.

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a member of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, met twice with Shein officials last fall, an aide said — then released a public video calling on the SEC to investigate Shein.

“Accessing U.S. markets and capital is a privilege, and we rely on the SEC to root out undeserving companies,” Luetkemeyer said. “I sincerely hope the officials at the commission will review Shein to ensure American capital will not fund crimes against humanity.”

Rep. John Rose took to X after a meeting with Claure last November.

Claure “conveyed SHEIN’s commitment to address and rectify the concerns I have raised regarding its ties to China’s Communist Party and forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Rose wrote, and “SHEIN must allow credible and independent verification that the company does not use Uyghur forced labor before it is allowed to register on the U.S. exchange.”

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The lawmakers’ ire reflects the growing support for protectionist policies in Congress on both sides of the aisle after years of support for free trade. And it speaks to lawmakers’ shared distrust of China.

The lobbying push is the latest step Shein has taken to improve its image abroad in recent years. Shein has for several years been a sponsor of the Stagecoach music festival in California and, on one heavily criticized occasion, flew TikTok influencers to China to see gleaming Shein factories.

Signs of a branding campaign are beginning to emerge in Washington too.

One weekend in April, Foreign Area Officers gathered for the FAO Association’s annual gala, a black-tie affair held each year at the Army Navy Country Club that promised attendees a live band and hand-rolled cigars.

The event had a usual slate of Washington, D.C., sponsors like Booz Allen Hamilton and General Atomics, according to an online invitation. Then there was an unexpected addition from the fast-fashion business: Shein, a “platinum” gala sponsor.

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS.