Genocide is not a word to be thrown around. The cultural and historical associations with it are strong. Thousands of Holocaust survivors still live today with memories of the horrific persecution they endured only seventy-five years ago. The world today should be more concerned with preventing genocide rather than being concerned with mislabeling genocide. Now, the Uyghurs have suffered similar treatment such as mass incarceration and invasive surveillance at the hands of the oppressive Chinese government for years. In one of the last moves of the Trump Administration, the U.S. officially recognized this situation as genocide, but up until now, foreign countries had few ways to act against this mistreatment. News articles have carried the stories as the number of imprisoned Uyghurs grew from the hundreds to the thousands to over a million. Often, ordinary people feel unable to help, and even governments are too wary of stirring up conflict with China to take any substantial action. However, over the last year, China has shifted its method from internment camps to forced labor. While so-called “reeducation” camps are still flooded with new detainees, the government ships “graduates” of the camps to factories and farms across China. Reports show that these workers are mistreated, not paid, and restricted from leaving dorms and factories. Although deeply saddening, this development in China’s systematic method of persecution offers foreign countries and companies a better chance to stand up for the Uyghur people.
How so? China is the leading supplier of cotton, and eighty-four percent of that cotton comes from the Xinjiang region, home of the Uyghur people. Xinjiang cotton is a key product for the Chinese economy, and everyone is familiar with China’s broad export reach. Everyone owns products made in China, and likely everyone who has bought clothes in recent years owns a garment made by Uyghurs in forced labor factories. Some estimates say as much as one in five garments worldwide are the result of forced, unfair Uyghur labor. The issue doesn’t just extend to the cotton industry but unfortunately affects eighty-three brands, including top companies such as Apple, Nike, BMW, and Sony that use Uyghur labor somewhere in their supply chains. After Australian Strategic Policy Institute published this highly influential report, eighty of the companies responded to the claims, and many were previously unaware that the factories in their supply chains utilized forced Uyghur labor. As China’s oppression of the Uyghurs shifts from simply “re-education” camps to forced labor, foreign companies have an opportunity to refuse to use Uyghur labor, pressuring China to end their terrible treatment of the Uyghurs.
Ever since researchers and organizations have published explosive reports detailing China’s human rights abuses, public awareness and pressure leaves companies and nations with no choice but to respond to the implications. Some companies, such as H&M, Marks and Spencer, and Tesco, have vowed to investigate and remove all forced labor from their supply chains. Other companies have yet to respond to the issue, but face growing pressure and concern. Nations, as well as companies, chose to take bold stands against China’s oppression. The U.K. decided to fine companies that refuse to disclose links to the Xinjiang region. The U.S. Congress moved to ban imports such as cotton and tomatoes from China’s Xinjiang region. These are heartening actions in a difficult situation. Many governments worry about maintaining friendly relations with China and avoiding conflict while responding ethically to this human rights issue. Both sensitivity and courage are key in the fight for peace, for the world as well as the Uyghur people, but some hope still remains. The path to peace includes bans and tariffs on a government level and boycotts and political action from the people. Governments and citizens alike must not only acknowledge the situation, but also take economic measures to pressure China to end its oppression of the Uyghur people.
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Picture Credits: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/fashion/uighur-forced-labor-cotton-fashion.html