Beginning along the famed Silk Road’s winding trails, the story of being Uighur in the Xinjiang territory in China is one of lost prosperity and an eternal struggle against the oppression from outside forces.

The Uighur Plight

At the height of the Karahanid Kingdom in 934 A.D., the Uighur were a prosperous people. Their cities were epicenters of philosophical and scientific thought, and the capital city Kashgar was a bastion of Islam. This all ended with the invasion of the Manchu Empire and the eventual takeover of the Chinese Nationalists in 1911.

Xinjiang has since been designated as an autonomous region within China. Despite this, the Chinese government has implemented numerous policies in hopes of assimilating the Uighur people and crushing separatist movements. The Uighurs have now become a minority in Xinjiang as the Han Chinese have become the majority in the region’s urban areas. The Xinjiang have been abetted by government incentives, while the Uighurs have been largely confined to poor rural areas. The wealthy and influential capital city Urumqi is now approximately 75% Han Chinese.

Uighurs in Xinjiang have had their land redistributed to the Han migrants, leaving not enough farming land behind to make a living. According to Reuters, the Uighur people face discriminatory hiring practices with many businesses displaying signs banning them from applying for jobs. This marginalization along with growing poverty among the Uighur people has spurred increased resentment towards Beijing and the ruling Communist Party. In 2001, the Chinese government used 9/11 and the resulting American War on Terror to repress the Uighurs’ desire for independence and begin intense surveillance and military operations.

Surveillance and Re-education

According to Human Rights Watch, Beijing requires officers in the region to use what is called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) as part of the Strike Hard Campaign to track the movements of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. The IJOP operating system and app, created by state-owned contractors, is used to aggregate data and flag the location of those deemed potentially threatening. The app tracks the movement of phones and vehicles, alerting officials to what are considered suspiciously long trips. The IJOP app also prompts officials to keep the biometric data of every person, including fingerprints, DNA, and blood type.

The IJOP has become a key component in the next stage in Beijing’s ploy for control, particularly with the implementation of so-called “reeducation camps.” Such camps were created by the Regulations on De-extremification in March 2017, specifically designed to convert Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities to the ideological beliefs of the Communist Party. All forms of traditional religious clothing, literature, and practice are considered extremist and cause for internment in the camps under the regulation. Any form of travel is reason enough for being labeled suspicious and possibly being sent to the camps. People of all ages, male and female, are at risk. Security checks and invasive checks have become part of everyday life in Xinjiang, making it impossible to escape suspicion.

Inside the re-education camps, detainees are forced to learn about the teachings and ideologies of the Communist Party. According to those who have been detained, individuals who fail to comply are punished severely. The penalties range from verbal abuse to food deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings, and the use of restraints and stress positions. Deaths inside the camps have been reported but there is no way to verify how many people have died and the circumstances concerning their deaths. The number of detainees also remains unknown. Estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, possibly nearing one million.

What Is Being Done?

In the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s (CERD) periodic report on China, the committee stated its concern that the poverty rates among ethnic minorities in Xinjiang remain high. CERD also stated its deep concern about “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities . . . without being charged or tried.” CERD urged China to halt the unlawful detention of individuals and immediately release those who have been detained.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet is currently seeking access to China to review these reports. However, Chinese officials claim the happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang, as well as assert that “hostile Western forces” are simply misrepresenting and vilifying what is occurring in Xinjiang. The United States is preparing to enact a new round of sanctions against China over this mass imprisonment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. According to the Uyghur Humans Rights Project, these sanctions were previously halted due to trade negotiations with China during the G20 summit but have since been approved by all respective parties within the U.S. government.

Though the current situation for the Uighur people of Xinjiang remains dire, through diplomatic action by the U.N., the United States, and its allies are bringing awareness to the issue. Such dedication by international intervention has presented continued hope. Such hope is for a future where being Uighur in Xinjiang will cease to be a story of systematic oppression and instead will become a story of perseverance through great odds.

– Shane Thoma
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Uighur Forced LaborSourcing from Uighur forced labor is so prevalent in the global fashion industry. Human rights groups have estimated that as many as one in five cotton products sold worldwide is outcomes of the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. More than 30% of U.S. apparel imports from China. This means your clothes probably come from the region. Thus, incarcerated people may have partially produced them. Uighur forced labor links to supply chains around the world. Governments and companies bear a social responsibility to uphold international labor standards.

Difficulties with Regulation

Uighur forced labor is difficult to regulate. This is because brands may unwittingly be promoting the conditions of incarceration and cultural erasure. Brands may indirectly benefit from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs. Cotton is routed to neighboring countries before arriving in the United States. This obscures the supply chain’s traceability. Leonie Barrie is an apparel analyst at the international analytics firm GlobalData. He speaks to this point of why eliminating Xinjiang cotton proves difficult and says, “we’re talking about multiple touchpoints along the supply chain.”

Information inconsistencies further complicate sourcing. False claims hinder activists who push for change from accurately linking brands to the factories. For instance, with Adidas, “one factory in Xinjiang has a giant billboard of Adidas on their premises,” explained Danielle Cave, a deputy director at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Yet, Adidas denied having ties to the manufacturer. This obscurity with corroborating the statements of brands and manufacturers is a long-existing problem. Auditors and activists who combat issues of labor exploitation in the fashion industry have to face this issue.

Still, brands themselves prove reluctant to enact the full-scale changes necessary for living up to their ethical manufacturing commitments. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report naming 83 brands that had “directly or indirectly benefited from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs as recently as 2019.” The list included popular American brands such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, L.L. Bean, Zara and Uniqlo. When these companies responded to the claims, few explicitly confirmed whether they used Xinjiang cotton. Instead, they redirected towards their participation in organizations that promote ethical fashion.

Redirecting the Conversation

An example of brands redirecting the conversation is Nike’s reaction to The Washington Post’s story. The story was on a supplier Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co, and their apparent use of forced Uighur labor in a central factory for Nike products. A spokesperson for Nike did not deny the claims. They claimed the company was “committed to upholding international labor standards globally.” They did not give action steps on following up on that commitment. Furthermore, even companies with rigorous corporate social-responsibility guidelines may employ Uighur forced labor, whether they are aware of it or not.

Where Change is Coming From

Change, however, is coming from a different direction: lawmakers and the activists behind them. On July 9, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned regional officials and a security agency for detaining over one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in these forced labor camps. Prisoners could not practice Islam and underwent sterilization practices. Two new laws are also working through the United States Congress and the European Parliament. They prevent the import of goods made from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.

Such legislation could set a precedent for future laws that weed out forced labor from supply chains. However, simply preventing these imports from reaching the U.S. is only a temporary solution. To prevent Uighur forced labor from spreading to other markets, we must take a universal stance against exploitative practices and muddled supply chains.

– Christine Mui
Photo: Flickr