Why are major brands caught in a conflict with China?

by hridika ahire

Why are major brands caught in a conflict with China?

April 5, 2021

Xinjiang is the largest province in China and arguably the most controversial one. Xinjiang is home to 12 million Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim. Recently China has come under flak by the international community for alienating and detaining these people to “re-education camps”. Reports have also surfaced of Uighurs being forced into labour under inhumane conditions. As a result major brands like H&M, Nike, Adidas and other Western retailers have threatened to boycott China because of this. Here's how this will impact us.

You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard the news of forced labour floating around in China’s Xinjiang province. After H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing retailer locked horns with China, the next in line is Nike. The Chinese social media was trending with the statement released by Nike.

The Twitter-like social media platform called Weibo flooded with Nikes’ statement saying they were “concerned about reports of forced labour” in the Xinjiang province. They also said that they would no longer source textiles from the region. However, it was unclear when Nike had released the statement since there was no date on it, and Nike did not respond immediately when they were asked for any comment on the issue.

I firmly oppose any act to smear China

- Wang Yibo, Chinese Actor

End of Contracts

Due to this scandal, popular Chinese actor Wang Yibo, 23, has terminated his contract with Nike. His Weibo account, which has over 38 million followers, released a statement saying, “I firmly oppose any act to smear China.” He isn’t the only celebrity to have terminated their contract with Nike. Chinese actress Tan Songyun also announced on Weibo that she is terminating the contract with Nike.

Over half a million people of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang have been coerced into picking cotton. The Xinjiang region is one of the leading producers of cotton. More than 20% of the world’s cotton is exported from here, and more than 84% of China’s cotton is cultivated here. A report by the Center for Global policy release in 2020 suggests that there is evidence that is “tainted” by human rights abuses. This includes suspected forced labor of Uighur and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

Import Restrictions

As a preventative measure, the US imposed sanctions and cotton import restrictions on the suppliers who are controlled by Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The US government was recommended to expand its import restrictions to the cotton coming from Xinjiang and the whole region under XPCC.

A researcher specializing in Xinjiang and Tibet, Adrian Zenz, analysed the government documents and media reports. It was to determine if the authorities were, in fact, coercing people by “labor transfer programs” to provide thousands of cotton pickers.

How Cotton Comes Into Play

The Labor Transfer Program is a scheme to give some occupation to the poor. The governments’ massive poverty alleviation campaign, however, evidence suggests that it targets Uighur and other Muslim minorities and coerces them in participating.

Even though around 87% of harvesting in XPCC regions use mechanized harvesting, they still heavily rely on manual cotton picking. It was also noted that while the number of workers brought from other provinces for harvest season dropped, the local ethnic minority laborers had increased drastically.

Around 570,000 people from the Aksu, Hotan, and Kashgar minorities and labor programs in the other ethnic minority regions as well as prison labor made up the majority of the manual cotton pickers. These programs are often glorified in the state media as examples of the government assisting millions of poor people into work. But these articles also provide some clues to the exploitative and coercive nature. The transferred workers have to live on-site, far from their own homes and are subjected to ideological training.

These publications on labor schemes often include policies discouraging “illegal religious activities” and changing their thoughts and behaviors. In 2019, a state media reports “gradually overcoming the disadvantages of the lack of land, deep-rooted thoughts of being lazy, insufficient inner motivation, and low awareness of going out of work.”

The Dark Side Of Labor Transfer Program

Zenz’s research corroborated by Reuters found that the authorities in Tibet were expanding the labor transfer program widely; they set up quotas to move the workers off their own land and put them into military-style work training facilities.

Analysts have labelled China’s treatment of these workers, including the people’s re-education camps, enforced sterilization of women, surveillance of people and machines, as cultural genocide. However, China has denied the accusations and said that the camps are training centers combating religious extremism. About 1.29 million people would go through these centers per year.

Where The Brands Stand

Uighurs approached the International Criminal Court (ICC) in July 2020. They handed over some evidence to the ICC, asking them to investigate crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang. The prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that they were unable to do so as the alleged crimes took place in China, which was out of ICC’s jurisdiction.

Not only Nike but H&M, too, said that they would not source cotton from Xinjiang and that they would end the trade with China over “forced labor” accusations. Besides Nike and H&M, Adidas, New Balance and Burberry have suspended licenses of cotton being sourced from Xinjiang. We guess Nike wont have to send many products to China anytime soon.


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