China’s cotton trade: Boycotts give hope to Uighurs but companies take a hit

Agenda: Western businesses face calls to take stance against forced labour in Xinjiang

For Jewher Ilham, consumers in the West refusing to buy products linked to the use of forced labour in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, is one of ideas that gives her hope.

Her father, Ilham Tohti, is perhaps the most famous jailed scholar in the world. A former lecturer in economics in Minzu University in Beijing, he was jailed for life in 2014 after being accused by the Chinese regime of advocating separatism for Xinjiang.

Jewher and her father are Uighur Muslims, and the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang are the subject of a massive campaign of oppression that has seen more than a million people being put into camps by the Beijing regime.

There are also widespread reports that members of these groups are being used as forced labour in a region that produces about 20 per cent of the world’s cotton.


An entity called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which runs many of the camps in which people are being held, is also responsible for moving Han Chinese people to a province where formerly the native ethnic groups constituted the vast majority of the population.

The XPCC is also involved in the use of camp labour in cotton production and other commercial activities, including the production of key solar panel materials, according to the Biden administration in the US.

“If people chose to buy from more ethical brands, rather than those brands who choose not to be ethical, then that would be very helpful,” Ilham says.

Ilham, who now lives in Washington DC, says her family has not been allowed to visit her father since 2017, and that she last saw him in 2013, when he was arrested as they were both about to board a flight to the US. She doesn’t know if he is still alive.

The latest statistics show that Xinjiang produces more than 80 per cent of China’s cotton, and that Chinese cotton accounts for more than 20 per cent of world production, she says.

“The demands for those products are so high, they need workers. So that if the demand is not as high, maybe the reason for the existence of the camps, the factories, may not exist anymore.”

Major companies and brands should not put their customers in the difficult situation of having to establish whether products might be associated with the use of forced labour, she says.

“The companies are more than capable of examining their supply chains and establishing if they involve forced labour or not.”

Ilham works for the Worker Rights Consortium, an NGO that is in turn part of the Coalition to End Uighur Forced Labour.

The coalition has asked major brands and retailers to commit to ending any business relationships that would see them using cotton sourced from Xinjiang, and gives details of those that have publicly committed to taking action, and those major businesses that the coalition is still “concentrating their advocacy efforts on”.

There are seven companies listed as having made a commitment, including the UK retailers, Asos and Marks and Spencer, while there are 47 major businesses listed from whom the coalition says it is still seeking commitments.

Despite the suffering of her family and millions of other Turkic Muslims from Xinjiang, Ilham says she remains optimistic about the future, citing the boycott campaign against the use of Xinjiang cotton as one of the sources for this optimism.

But the idea of boycotting products that come from Xinjiang, because they might be associated with forced labour, is resented, and strongly resisted, in China.

Some of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers have seen their sales in the Chinese market hit badly after they responded to the ethical concerns of their consumers in the West.

The European NGO, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which conducts unannounced audits of producers to check for such issues as child labour, issued statements in 2020 about Xinjiang in which it said it was ceasing its field level activities in the province because of the “increasingly intolerable environment” there, and that no new licensed “Better Cotton” would be coming from the region.

Among the matters cited in a BCI statement in October 2020 was the imposition of sanctions by the US on XPCC, which had up to January 2020 been a member of BCI.

In March of this year, during a huge backlash in China against western businesses that had expressed concern about what was happening in Xinjiang, the BCI office in Shanghai issued a statement saying that its Xinjiang project site had performed “second-party credibility audits and third-party verifications over the years, and has never found a single case related to incidents of forced labour”.

At the same time the public statements issued last year about Xinjiang were withdrawn from the organisation’s website, without explanation.

It is not the role of business to address what is happening in Xinjiang, according to Dirk Vantyghem, director general of Euratex, a Brussels-based organisation that represents the European textile and apparel industries (but not the major brands).

“This is obviously very much a political topic, and therefore should be tackled at the level of government-to-government dialogue,” he says.

“Obviously companies need to respect standards, that’s clear, but it is not for companies to solve this problem, to solve the Uighur problem. That is beyond our mandate, our possibilities.”

One of the most high-profile instances of a western company getting into difficulty over the issue of Xinjiang cotton involved the Swedish retailer H&M.

It was one of a number of western brands that last year expressed concern about the use of forced labour in Chinese cotton production.

When the UK, the US, and the EU announced sanctions earlier this year targeting the XPCC and officials in the Chinese Communist Party, H&M and other western brands found themselves at the centre of a Chinese social media storm.

The use of social media within China as a way of punishing international companies who would dare to criticise China, is a very effective tool

Chinese celebrities and state media issued statements saying that H&M and others should pay a price for their “wrong actions”, referring back to earlier public statements by the companies.

“Spreading rumours to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!”, a Chinese Communist Party youth group said on the Chinese platform, Weibo, while displaying a screenshot of an earlier H&M statement.

H&M even disappeared from a number of Uber-type taxi apps, so that it no longer featured as a possible location, according to Irish academic David O’Brien, who once worked in Xinjiang, and now lectures in the east Asian studies department of Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany.

“It [H&M] was removed. It basically no longer existed,” he says. “The use of social media within China as a way of punishing international companies who would dare to criticise China, is a very effective tool.”

Trading results for H&M released last week showed that sales in China were down 23 per cent in local currency terms, for the second quarter of 2021, when compared with the same quarter last year.

O’Brien thinks a boycott of products that come from Xinjiang and are associated with the use of forced larger is the right response to what is happening in China.

“The situation in Xinjiang is not getting better, it is getting worse, and the Chinese government has made it very clear that it is not going to listen to the concerns that have been expressed by the United Nations and various human rights groups, and one of the areas where they might be more prepared to listen, might be if they feel economic pressure over what they are doing in Xinjiang.”

O’Brien compares the situation with China to that of South Africa during the 1980s, when the world decided to take action to oppose the apartheid regime.

“There is a very significant moral element to this, because what is happening in Xinjiang is truly shocking and it is getting worse, and it is going to continue in this form. Of course it is about the profits and the bottom line, but, going back to the South Africa example, that was about profits too, but it was also about something greater.”

Ruairí Quinn, the former leader of the Labour Party, believes that it is wrong to compare apartheid in South Africa to what is happening in China today, and to argue that a similar response should occur.

“I don’t think you can compare with what happened in South Africa with what is happening today with the second largest economy in the world, [one] that is probably going to be the largest,” says Quinn, who is a member of the board of the Ireland China Institute, set up to promote greater understanding between the two countries.

What the Chinese have achieved in terms of lifting their people out of poverty involves a scale that we in Europe find hard to imagine, he says.

“I’m a dedicated European and a socialist, and in the Labour Party sense of that word, but I would be very slow to criticise other systems that have emerged, and that have emerged so successfully, as we have, and as the Chinese have, in the last 40 and 50 years, and I would have a great respect for how they have done that, mistakes and all, and I think they would have some respect for us. I would have no respect for anybody who would come into Ireland and start telling us how we should run our affairs.”

What is happening in Xinjiang is not central to the relationship between China and the rest of the world, Quinn says. “It should be dealt with, but is not an either/or.”

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne is one of four members of the Oireachtas who belong to the international Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

“On a personal level, I would have concerns about knowing that any goods are coming from forced labour camps, whether in Xinjiang or anywhere else,” he says.

“I certainly, if I was aware of it, I wouldn’t purchase it. And I would encourage any clothing manufacturers to ensure that they are not using or importing any cloth or material that is coming from those labour camps.”

He is in favour of trading with China, and learning from China, he says. “But at the same time, in our economic partnership, we can’t turn a blind eye to the abuse of human rights. Unfortunately what we are seeing is a growing oppression of minorities by the Chinese Communist Party.”

According to Vantyghem, there are a number of changes under way that are relevant to the issue of Xinjiang.

One is that companies that source cotton outside Europe are already looking to diversify away from China, and Xinjiang in particular.

“It used to be up to 30 per cent of the world’s supply of cotton was coming from that province and so obviously there was an issue of dependency, and how we can diversify, and how we can revitalise other countries such as Turkey and Egypt, and some other African countries, and that is happening.”

Another development is an EU initiative to increase supply chain transparency in terms of how their products came into being, and whether the process involved breaches of environmental and social standards.

Vantyghem says he believes the initiative, which proposes new liabilities for business, is a good one, as long as it does not create unrealistic responsibilities about supply chain knowledge.

In a short statement the Chinese embassy in Dublin said allegations of “so-called” forced labour in Xinjiang were based on geopolitically-motivated disinformation.

“The rights and interests of ethnic minority workers in Xinjiang are protected by law. They are free to choose a profession and can decide on where to work of their own free will.”

Employees sign contracts of their own volition and through consultation, on an equal footing, it said.

“Anyone who is fair-mined would see it is a good thing to provide more job opportunities to the people, because that will help improve their livelihood.”