'Bombshell report' finds Beijing breaching every provision of UN Genocide Convention
- By Hannah Lucinda Smith
I had never thought much about the provenance of my trainers until I stood in front of a young woman holding a picture of her missing father. Shemsiye Ali was waiting in the biting cold outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, hoping for answers about where he might be. She knew there were not many good options, and that she would be unlikely to receive a reply from the Chinese authorities.
“My father could be in a dark cell or being forced to work in the cotton fields and factories,” she told me. “And it is all because of one thing - who he is, not what he has done.”
I have met dozens of Uighurs like Shemsiye in Istanbul over the past year, from different backgrounds but with similar stories. All have lost touch with relatives in China and most have heard through convoluted networks and coded messages that they have been taken to one of the forced labour camps that Beijing claims don’t exist. In some cases they have been incarcerated as punishment for their relatives having fled the country, in others they have been accused of separatism for having taken trips abroad.
Some of the Istanbul exiles have received calls from their relatives, who are clearly under duress as they try to persuade them to return to Xinjiang province. Others have been cut off by families who tell them not to call any more or block them on messaging apps. One man had spotted his four-year-old son shouting praise for the Chinese Communist Party in a propaganda video on TikTok.
As evidence of the abuses that China is committing against the Uighurs has mounted to a point beyond denial, it feels increasingly uncomfortable to know that I am complicit in their suffering. You probably are too, unless somehow you avoid buying anything linked to China. Last year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a group which documents human rights violations, identified 82 well-known companies that appear to use forced Uighur labour in their supply chains, including the trainer brand I was wearing as I spoke with Shemsiye.
Cheap, mass-produced consumer goods are manufactured through a process so convoluted that companies can claim not to know what happens in the factories where their logos are emblazoned on to trainers and T-shirts. Work is contracted and subcontracted out to companies that employ both Han Chinese workers on regular contracts and Uighurs who have been rounded up and forced to work.
The factories are surrounded with barbed wire and surveillance cameras, and Uighurs are given compulsory ideological and language training once factory hours finish. They are not allowed to leave or take holidays. At least 80,000 Uighurs are thought to have been transferred out of the detention camps in Xinjiang to these factories, all around China, between 2017 and 2019.
The brands claim not to know what is happening but they should because much of the Australian report is based on open-source information from the factories. They boast of “transforming” their Uighur workers into “modern citizens” who are “more attractive” and have “learnt to take showers”, while Chinese state media regularly carries reports about the successes of the state’s “Xinjiang Aid” program, which encourages factories to hire workers from the detention camps.
A cynical class of entrepreneurs are making a fortune by selling Uighur workers by the hundred, advertising them online as having “already passed political and medical examinations” and with “semi-military style management; can withstand hardship”.
Beijing might deny rounding up Uighurs when it is asked by western journalists and investigators but it also makes no effort to hide what it is doing. Some of the companies named in the report said they had severed their links with the factories that used Uighur labour. More tried to absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming that they had no contracts with the factories in question, while admitting that there may be links to forced labour within the supply chain.