Photo: A March 2021 Washington, D.C. protest against human rights violations that are ongoing against Uyghurs in China. Many ethic Uyghurs keep their faces covered during such protests abroad, as they fear reprisals against family members back home.
This summer saw major American companies release statements in support of Black Lives Matter and the racial justice protests taking place across the U.S. and the world. Several even followed up these statements with concrete goals to address racial inequity within their organizations or supply chains. It was seen by many as a hopeful sign that even large companies could be progressive when it comes to social issues and take difficult stands.
Apparently that courage ends at the border, especially when it comes to the country on which many brands depend for raw materials, manufacturing and essential parts — China, America’s largest trading partner. According to a recent investigation by The Wire China, only a handful of companies were even willing to speak with reporters about human rights violations against the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority. Most refused to comment or did not respond.
“With the genocidal campaign that is soon to enter its fifth year, Uyghurs don’t understand how ‘business as usual’ has continued as long as it has,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C.
This is concerning as, over the past four years, the situation in the Uyghur homeland in eastern China has deteriorated significantly. What started out as a digitally enhanced police state morphed into the largest system of concentration camps since World War II, housing perhaps as many as 3 million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities. Mosques, Uyghur neighborhoods and shrines have been destroyed, and the use of their language is increasingly prohibited.
Meanwhile, China has severely restricted access to these camps and the entire Uyghur homeland, making it hard for us to really gauge the extent of what is happening.
What news has gotten out is deeply worrying. Camp detainees were also being used as forced labor for factories supplying international companies. Torture, sexual violence and suspicious deaths of camp detainees have been reported. And now, there is evidence of a program to reduce Uyghur birthrates, in what some call a “slow genocide.” And that’s the right word: Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared what’s happening a genocide in January, only the sixth such declaration in U.S. history — one that his successor and the Joe Biden administration have made clear they uphold.
Despite its inaccessibility to NGOs and journalists, the Uyghur homeland (now called Xinjiang, formerly East Turkestan) is one of the world’s main cotton growing regions and also a key source of silicon and other minerals used in technology manufacturing. The region is deeply interconnected with global supply chains. Yet thus far, few brands have been willing to be proactive about addressing forced labor and human rights concerns.
“The Uyghur community demands real action from brands to end their complicity in Uyghur forced labor, not empty declarations. Brands must urgently . . . ensure that they are not profiting from Uyghur forced labor,” said Muetter Iliqud, head of communications of the Norwegian Uyghur Committee, in a press statement.
While the situation for the Uyghurs is especially bad, it is part of a worrying trend across China, where human rights lawyers and feminists are being jailed, journalism is being criminalized, and censorship is growing. China’s paramount leader, President Xi Jingping, has his own cult of personality befitting any dictator, and he has consolidated power to a degree not seen in China in decades. This is why we have also seen a rapid, sudden, and shocking repression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
China is not only a key cog in many companies' supply chains. It's also an increasingly important consumer market and the world’s second largest economy. Refusing to follow the rules — in this case, being outspoken about human rights — could mean losing access to this market. That's a lesson Google, which has been blocked in China since 2010 for refusing to censor search, knows all too well. Sadly, this is one case where companies are putting profit ahead of people.
“I find it somewhat discouraging that one of the biggest and clearest violations of liberty and human rights of our era — the treatment of the Uyghurs — receives as little condemnation from those in power as it does,” said Patrick Collison, CEO of the fintech company Stripe, in a recent interview. “I get why, of course: It's bad for business.”
But if companies don’t act, the government might force their hands. Cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang are already being refused entry at the border. In Congress, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has bipartisan support. If passed, it would essentially prohibit any goods from Xinjiang from entering the United States unless importers can show clear and convincing evidence it had no connection to forced labor.
“Many U.S., international, and Chinese corporations are complicit in the exploitation of forced labor and these products continue to make their way into global supply chains and our country. It is long past time for the Congress to act,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in a recent press statement.
For Uyghurs suffering in camps for years, the fact that companies chose profits over people for so long is an unforgivable offense. All the ethical commitments, human rights policies, and sourcing standards mean nothing if governments allow companies to ignore one of the most egregious human rights violations of the 21st century. Ignorance is no longer a valid defense.
Image credit: Kuzzat Altay/Unsplash