China’s treat of the Uyghur people is the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since World War II. In their attempts to force Uyghurs to assimilate, the Chinese government is forcing millions of Uyghur Muslims to denounce their religion and ethnic culture, while also suppressing their human rights.
The mass discrimination and oppression of millions of Uyghurs by the Chinese government now meets the UN definition of genocide.
Simultaneously, this week over 180 organisations (a mix of Uyghur rights groups, civil society organisations, and labour unions from around the world) are calling on apparel brands and retailers to stop using forced Uyghur labour and end their complicity in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses.
The global fashion industry is inextricably linked to much of what is currently going on, here’s the current situation and what human rights groups are demanding.
Xinjiang is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that has been under Chinese control since 1949. It’s home to around 10 million Uyghurs and some other Muslim minorities. Uyghurs speak their own language, have their own culture, and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some people, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan. Historically, Uyghurs had been the majority in the region. Now, they account for just under half of Xinjiang’s total population.
Xianjiang is rich in natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. As the region has developed it has also attracted increased migration from more Han Chinese, which was encouraged by the Chinese government. However, this demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some larger cities. In 2009 there were riots in the capital of Urumqi after Uyghurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority, with around 200 people killed and hundreds injured. The Chinese government blamed these protests on violent separatist groups, which is a tactic it continues to use today. After the riots, it cracked down on the region, which led to implementing repressive policies that curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.
While there have been a few attacks, some of which have been violent, from Uyghur separatists over the years, there is no evidence of a strategic separatist movement, jihadist or otherwise, that could legitimately challenge the government. However the Chinese government now essentially views any expression of Islam in Xianjiang as extremist.
As well as its resources, Xinjiang is a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a large development plan that spans Asia and Europe. The Chinese government want to eradicate any separatism in order to continue development in the area, though human rights organisations have stated that the economic benefits of resource extraction are disproportionately enjoyed by Han Chinese while Uyghurs continue to be marginalised.
Since its crackdown on the region, many new laws have been imposed, alongside intense surveillance, under the guise of ‘de-extremification’.
Examples of surveillance include: security checkpoints at train stations and roads in and out of town where residents must scan identification cards, facial recognition technology to track movement, police confiscating and going through people’s phones, and confiscating passports so Uyghurs can’t travel abroad.
When CNN traveled through Xinjiang in 2019, there were surveillance cameras about every 150 feet, monitoring people’s faces and daily routines. Mobile police checkpoints popped up at random throughout the region, leading to long lines on public roads. At the checkpoints, and sometimes randomly on the street, police officers stopped people to ask for their ID cards and occasionally demanded to plug unidentified electronic devices into cellphones to scan them without explanation.
Policies range from punitive things such as launching a campaign against halal food, the banning of certain Muslim names for babies, and banning long beards and veils, to making it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. At the most extreme end, there are numerous reports of torture and political indoctrination in camps where over 1 million people have been detained.
China has also specifically moved to avoid a diaspora of Uyghurs, pressuring governments such as Thailand and Egypt to repatriate those who have fled, and arresting many of them upon reentry into China.
What is going on in the camps?
China has been criticised for its treatment and mass detention of the Muslim Uyghur community for many years, it is estimated that so far China has detained 1 – 1.8 million Uyghurs in ‘reeducation centres’. China began using camps in Xinjiang in 2014, and drastically expanded in 2017. Initially the government denied the camps existed, but in 2018 they essentially legalised them.
Reuters journalists, observing satellite imagery, found that thirty-nine of the camps almost tripled in size between April 2017 and August 2018. Similarly, analyzing local and national budgets over the past few years, Germany-based Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz found that construction spending on security-related facilities in Xinjiang increased by 20 billion yuan (around $2.96 billion) in 2017.
The Chinese government has claimed that the camps are actually vocational/training centres that combat extremism and teach detainees useful skills. However, leaked documents and firsthand accounts tell another story. Those interned in camps are subjected to forced labour and psychological indoctrination programmes including studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture, while Uyghur women face compulsory sterilisation and sexual abuse. These tactics are recognised to be crimes against humanity.
As Josh Chin and Clément Bürge reported for The Wall Street Journal:
One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”
Most people in camps have never been charged with crimes, leaving them no way to challenge their detentions. They can be targeted for a number of reasons including travelling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, attending services at mosques, having more than three children and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Their predominant crime is simply being Muslim. Children with parents in camps are often forced into state-run orphanages, where they can be cut off from their culture and language. At the same time, Uyghur people who do live outside of China are cut off from their families, as being in touch with Uyghurs in other countries could be enough to warrant arrest. They are trapped between returning home to be with their children and risking detection or staying abroad unable to have any contact with their family.
Another key component of the government’s strategy to dominate Uyghurs is a vast system of forced labour. It happens both inside the internment camps and beyond them, affecting factories and farms across the region and the rest of China.
The clothes factory was no different from the [internment] camp. There were police, cameras, you couldn’t go anywhere.
– Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman who was formerly detained in an internment camp and then
subjected to forced labour in a factory
The government is transporting Uyghur workers to other parts of China, where they are working under conditions that strongly indicate forced labour at factories exporting garments and other products. Simultaneously, a number of key Chinese suppliers selling to well-known UK and global brands are deeply implicated in the government’s abuses, having accepted subsidies to set up or expand factories in Xianjiang, or receiving workers under the government’s coercive training programmes.
There is a high risk, therefore, that almost every well known high street fashion brand, in the UK and globally, has this slave labour in their supply chains.
While there has been global outrage at China’s abuses towards Uyghurs many leading global apparel brands are not just complicit, but actively benefitting from the Chinese government’s actions. Brands source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from the Uyghur Region, more than 80% of which is grown in Xianjiang. This means that roughly 1 in 5 cotton products sold globally contains this cotton and/or yarn. It is almost certain that many of these goods, and the supply chains of most major apparel brands and retailers, are tainted with Uyghur forced labour. It is, essentially, the entire fashion industry’s responsibility.
Major corporations claim not to tolerate forced labour by their suppliers, but have offered no credible explanation as to how they can meet this standard while continuing to do business in a region where forced labour is rife. Furthermore, many apparel brands actively maintain lucrative partnerships with Chinese corporations implicated in forced labour. This includes corporations that benefit from the forced labour transfer of victims from the Uyghur Region to work in factories across China.
Global brands need to ask themselves how comfortable they are contributing to a genocidal policy against the Uyghur people. These companies have somehow managed to avoid scrutiny for complicity in that very policy – this stops today
– Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project
Virtually the entire apparel industry is tainted by forced Uyghur labour. Credible investigations and reports by the Associated Press, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Axios, Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Global Legal Action Network, and the Wall Street Journal have linked at least 83 brands to cases of Uyghur forced labour.
Many people who were arbitrarily detained have been forced to work in factories close to the detention camps, according to multiple reports. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that since 2017 eighty thousand previously detained Uighurs have been sent to factories throughout China linked to eighty-three global brands.
None of this, sadly, is new information. Investigations have repeatedly exposed the links between numerous high street, fast fashion and luxury brands to the forced labour system and modern slavery. But these industries have failed to take effective action. It is impossible for any global company to exert enough influence to be able to prevent forced labour in the Uyghur region, or provide remedy to the victims. Chinese suppliers supporting the system will listen to the government, not global brands. This is why brands must exit the region at every level of their supply chains. It’s the only way they can ensure they are not profiting from the system.
On July 23rd the End Uyghur Forced Labour campaign was launched, comprised of over 180 human rights organisations. It aims to put pressure on major textile and apparel brands and retailers, asking them to prevent the use of state-imposed forced labour of Uyghur people from Xinjiang in their supply chain. The coalition also urges national governments to strengthen and enforce existing laws prohibiting trade in goods produced using forced labour, and to implement laws requiring proper human rights due diligence in supply chains.
Now is the time for real action from brands, governments and international bodies – not empty declarations. To end the slavery and horrific abuses of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim peoples by the Chinese government, brands must ensure their supply chains are not linked to the atrocities against these people. The only way brands can ensure they are not profiting from the exploitation is by exiting the region and ending relationships with suppliers propping up this Chinese government system
– Jasmine O’Connor OBE, CEO of Anti-Slavery International
The groups have issued a call to action seeking brand commitments to cut all ties with suppliers implicated in forced labour and to end all sourcing from the Uyghur Region, from cotton to finished garments, within twelve months.
The project is seeking the following commitments from brands and retailers:
• Stop sourcing cotton, yarn, textiles, and finished products from the Uyghur Region. Since cotton and yarn from the region is used to make textiles and finished goods across China and in numerous other countries, this requires brands to direct all factories that supply them with textiles and finished goods not to use cotton or yarn from the Uyghur region.
• Cut ties with companies implicated in forced labour – those that have operations in the Uyghur region and have accepted government subsidies and/or government-supplied labour at these
operations. Examples include: Hong Kong-based Esquel Group and Chinese companies based
outside of the Uyghur Region, such as Huafu Fashion Co., Lu Thai Textile Co., Jinsheng Group
(parent company of Litai Textiles/Xingshi), Youngor Group, and Shandong Ruyi Technology
• Prohibit any supplier factories located outside of the Uyghur Region from using Uyghurs or Turkic or Muslim workers supplied through the Chinese government’s forced labour transfer scheme.
What can we do to help?
Make a lot of noise about this campaign. Share the information, tag brands, email them, post on social media. We can’t do everything as individuals, but we can lend our support through lending our voice. Please share this information as much as you can!