The Uighur slaves of Xinjiang's cotton industry

Slaves of the Supply Chain: The Xinjiang Cotton Story
6 min read
19 May, 2021
As the Uighur people endure state-sponsored genocide by the Chinese government, we examine the complicity of Western organisations in forced labour practices, and the relative failure of boycott attempts.

As the mechanics of China's genocidal repression of its Uighur minority has become more and more evident, the hunt has been on to find the link between the systematic suppression of a cultural minority and global commerce.

China is the workshop and supplier of the world, eager to pull innumerable monetary and political levers to maintain that status. A highly surveilled and repressed population could be grist for that particular mill, and a resource to be exploited in China's hungry labour market.

Early last year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published 'Uyghurs for Sale', an extensive report detailing how Uighurs found themselves, as a result of the state's attempts to destroy their culture and prevent them from practicing collective politics, enmeshed within China's system of state capitalism.

The report is not comprehensive, but it lays out a general case: that Uighurs from Xinjiang province in the west of China were shipped out as impressed labour across the country – sent to factories and workshops across China – where they were forced to work in some of China's manufacturing jobs, some were sent straight from the gates of internment camps. Wherever they were dispatched from, these workers were unable to go home.

China is the world's second largest producer of cotton. It is harvested and processed in Xinjiang – and there is evidence that Uighur slave labour is used in both activities

Only some firms are named outright, although the report's authors note that many other firms – Western and Asian – likely have this slave labour in their supply chains. Those companies who were named denied their knowledge and their involvement; they claimed that they take these allegations seriously and they promised to 'investigate' their supply chains, and its web of subcontracted labour, before promptly continuing as before.

Because Uighur slave labour is so diffusely spread around, those international bodies and campaigns which organise against the genocide had difficulty gaining purchase. The Australian report was not conclusive and later reporting indicated that as well as shipping Uighurs out to the national Chinese labour market, the authorities in Xinjiang had begun to build factories in the internment camps themselves, adding another grim layer of complexity.

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As this was a question of slave labour serving the supply chains of global capital, one possible tactic seemed obvious: a consumer boycott of sorts, aiming to punish those firms who profited from this impressed labour. But at that time, the individual boycotts advocated for by campaigning organisations seemed ineffective, not least because the possible targets were so diffuse.

Activists could try to avoid clothes from Nike and Gap; technology from Huawei, Apple, Samsung, and Sony; and cars from BMW and Volkswagen – all named in the ASPI report. But the possibility of doing any of them real damage in the process seemed remote.

When Disney filmed its remake of Mulan in Xinjiang, and thanked the authorities there for their co-operation, activists were outraged and campaigned on the issue – but whether it was this that led to the film's poor box office rather than the poor reviews and the pandemic, could not be said.

Activists could try to avoid clothes from Nike and Gap; technology from Huawei, Apple, Samsung, and Sony; and cars from BMW and Volkswagen – all named in the ASPI report. But the possibility of doing any of them real damage in the process seemed remote

One primary industry that seemed a good candidate for an umbrella campaign – China is the world's second largest producer of cotton.  It is harvested and processed in Xinjiang and there is evidence that Uighur slave labour is used in both activities. When the Xinjiang cotton story emerged, it seemed briefly like a specific point around which potential boycotters could operate, a little like the pressure to refuse South African apples during apartheid.

Impressed labourers harvesting cotton bore a strong resemblance to plantation slavery. It seemed extraordinary to some that this system could exist at all. And those clothing companies which made use of the cotton could be criticised and made figureheads for commercial co-operation in genocide – quite a thing when many of them market their clothes as ethically made.

The Better Cotton Initiative, a trade group within the industry, first announced the suspension of its activities in the province in March 2020, and then an end of field work in October of that year. The environment was 'untenable' due to the persistent problem of slave labour, it said. Some consumer organisations have focused on ridding one's wardrobe of Xinjiang cotton, and not buying more. But this has proven remarkably tricky given its ubiquity.

Nonetheless, in Western markets the power of the boycotts has not been a strong force. And while those firms which do use this cotton have not necessarily suffered for it in heir Western markets, in China, the same firms are punished for even talking about removing Xinjiang cotton from their supply.

H&M has been effectively removed from the Chinese internet for daring to say anything; now people in China cannot even hail a taxi to its shops

This year, China has instituted its own wide-ranging boycott of Western firms who have uttered even a squeak about the sourcing of cotton. Those firms which have attempted to divest themselves of the cotton or to condemn its use by others have found themselves essentially forced out of the markets in China. H&M has been effectively removed from the Chinese internet for daring to say anything; now people in China cannot even hail a taxi to its shops.

Some of the organisations designed to push for monitoring of international cotton to undermine slave labour in supply chains are themselves being suppressed by China, or otherwise bent to the state's will. The Chinese branch of the Better Cotton Initiative, stretching credulity, found no examples of forced labour in Xinjiang.

Is it any wonder that some firms have attempted to play both sides? Hugo Boss's Western divisions made the right noises about slave labour. But in the Chinese language, on Weibo, its account said that the company would continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton. This did not work, however – with Western consumers charging Hugo Boss with mercenary cynicism, and Chinese social media users claiming the company was insufficiently patriotic for criticising conditions in Xinjiang in English, Hugo Boss later claimed the statement supportive of Xinjiang cotton was 'unauthorised'.

Read more: Explainer - China's persecution of Uighur Muslims

It is likely this story will rumble on, not least because the evidence of China's genocide only grows, and there is no chance it will end for the foreseeable future. But as the tentative, easily cowed steps made by campaigners towards uniting around a boycott have shown – it is just as hard to punish firms and states which use slave labour as it is to determine whether fibres picked or processed by slaves ended up in a particular t-shirt or dress.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell