Brands linked to forced labour in Xinjiang face boycotts and legal threats after the imposition of US sanctions to protect Uighurs
Philip Sherwell and Madeleine Spence
The Sunday Times
Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uighurs in western China, is largely cut off from outside eyes, but there is growing evidence that dark events within its closed territory overshadow the British high street.
On Friday, America imposed sweeping sanctions on a Chinese paramilitary and business organisation that runs mass “re-education” camps for ethnic Uighur Muslims and dominates the vast cotton and textile export trade in the repressive province.
Washington’s punitive measures for human rights abuse serve as a warning to leading international brands selling popular fashion, technology and foodstuffs that any alleged links to Xinjiang and its forced labour projects could carry damaging repercussions for their finances and reputations.
Dozens of global names popular with British consumers face questions about alleged business ties to China’s huge cotton clothing industry — of which 85% comes from Xinjiang — and Uighur forced labour, now found in factories across China.
Brands identified by think tanks and campaign groups in Australia, America and the UK include Muji, H&M, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Adidas and Uniqlo. All deny having any evidence of forced Uighur labour in their supply chains. Several companies indicated that they had severed links with Xinjiang.
China is responsible for about a fifth of global cotton and yarn production, the majority of which is in Xinjiang.
Links between its “cotton gulag” and the fashion industry were first found two years ago, but brands are accused of looking the other way. They now face concerted campaigns to shame them, calls for consumer and investor boycotts and even the prospect of legal fallout.
In the name of counterterrorism and the alleviation of poverty, President Xi Jinping has overseen a mission throughout Xinjiang to crush the cultural identity of the Uighurs and other Turkic ethnic minorities. More than a million Muslims have been detained in camps, and the world’s largest mass surveillance operation has been deployed in a campaign to transform them into model citizens loyal to the Communist Party. Mosques have been demolished, detainees forced to eat pork and new revelations have detailed how the government has imposed birth control, sterilisation and abortion on women to try to curb the Muslim population.
A report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading American think tank, gave details of how Uighurs were transported to factories following their “graduation” from re- education camps.
The report quoted Chinese state documents as saying textile and clothing manufacturing in Xinjiang is a key investment focus in the drive to transform the region into an export hub.
Cotton farms in the region use pickers and weavers from prisons and local communities
As a border province with central Asia, Xinjiang is on the front line of Xi’s ambitious plans to embed Chinese power and influence across the world via his “new Silk Road” — the Belt and Road global infrastructure project.
Beijing has lured companies from the more expensive and crowded eastern provinces to Xinjiang with subsidies that include the use of cheap or entirely unpaid local labour.
The Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission boasted that workers emerging from “vocational training centres” had become an important driver of the province’s economy. Under the “Xinjiang aid” policy, “local residents rise above poverty through employment and lead fulfilling lives”, said a government official.
A month ago, the US government warned “businesses with potential supply-chain exposure to Xinjiang to consider the reputational, economic and legal risks of involvement with entities that engage in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, such as forced labour”.
A Calvin Klein ad. It denies using forced Uighur labour
Now it has imposed sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a sprawling paramilitary and economic organisation created in 1954 on the orders of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. This state-within-a-state has played a crucial role in the repression in the province, overseeing the vast network of “re-education” camps, which Beijing calls “vocational training centres”.
It is also the dominant business force, commanding about a fifth of Xinjiang’s economy. Its farms produce a third of its cotton, using pickers and weavers from prisons and local communities, and also control the tomato industry. One-fifth of the world’s tomatoes are exported from Xinjiang, mainly in the form of tomato paste, destined for ketchup, sauces and pizza toppings used in kitchens and restaurants across Europe and America.
“The XPCC is powered by forced labour, serving a function similar to the Soviet Union’s gulags,” said Nury Turkel, who heads the Uighur Human Rights Project in Washington. He described the corps as “one of the foremost institutions” of the exploitation of his people.
The new US sanctions will freeze any American assets held by the XPCC and prohibit transactions with it. After the details were announced, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, denounced China’s treatment of Xinjiang minorities as “the stain of the century” and called on other countries to join the American effort.
The penalties were implemented under the Magnitsky Act, designed to punish human rights abusers worldwide. There is no doubt they are also a new front in the deepening cold war between Donald Trump’s administration and Beijing before November’s presidential election — and a further step towards the “decoupling” of the two economies.
The sanctions could have an impact on any company doing business with the various trading wings of the XPCC, which runs towns, owns swathes of land and resettles ethnic Han Chinese people from eastern China to Xinjiang.
Another bill attracting cross-party support in the US Congress would in effect outlaw imports linked to Xinjiang unless firms could demonstrate they were not tarnished by human rights abuses.
Chloe Cranston, business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, said all cotton grown in Xinjiang risked being tainted by forced labour.
It is “impossible for brands to be able to identify with any credibility that there is no forced labour if their supply chains contain Xinjiang cotton”, she said.
“Brands need to understand that they’re not able to do meaningful due diligence and to verify with any credibility or reliability that there is no forced labour due to the scale of repression there.”
One prominent organisation that has sourced cotton from Xinjiang and works with 194 global brands is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global not-for-profit sustainability programme that aims to “make global cotton production better for the people who produce it”.
The BCI helps source cotton for many popular British high street brands and was still sourcing cotton in Xinjiang until March, when it suspended its assurance activities there, saying the environment “prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed”.