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The Acid Test for Whitewash: Forced Labor in the Supply Chain

By Annie McDonnell , in China Human Rights Uyghurs , at July 27, 2020 Tags: ,

Written by Snigdha Jagarlapudi and Annie McDonnell

While studying at Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt, Muyesser Muhemmed met her future husband, Sedirjan. They married in 2006 and moved to Kazakhstan in 2007. In 2016, Muyesser returned to her home city in Xinjiang, Atush of the prefecture Kizilsu. Initially, her trip was to be a mundane and tedious one to collect documents so she could renew her passport and complete her Kazakhstan citizenship application. However, upon returning to Atush, authorities seized her passport.

Without issuing her a secondary passport, local authorities questioned Muyesser incessantly about her father’s release from an education camp and her own passport request. Three months later, she was arrested under pretenses of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas. She had been deemed a religious extremist for simply studying Islam in a foreign country.

During her first couple months of house arrest, Muyesser had access to a phone and could contact her husband. Sedirjan watched his wife become noticeably sick through the photos he received. She had been pregnant when she initially returned to Xinjiang but had lost her baby, likely due to a forced abortion while in camp.

While Sedirjan wanted to find her, Muyesser pleaded that he not come to the country, messaging, “Please don’t come to this country…otherwise our children will become orphans…don’t look for me and don’t call my family. If anyone receives a call from abroad, the police will arrive within 20 minutes to harass them.” After two months, Muyesser was moved to a prison.

Sedirjan then lost contact for two months.

Finally, Sedirjan received a message from Muyesser after she was hospitalized due to fainting twice in prison. It was the last contact she had with him.

Photo 1: Muyesser’s children looking at family photos, Photo 2: Muyesser in hospital, sent to her husband.
Source: Xinjiang Victims Database, Muyesser (Entry 12)

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Sedirjan managed to reach the border and contact Muyesser’s relatives. Most of her relatives were taken, and he was warned not to contact them again.

Unfortunately, Sedirjan and Muyesser’s story is not unique. For the past ten years, over one million Uyghur Muslims have been imprisoned against their will in various forced labor camps, in direct breach of their human rights.

Source: Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center, Uyghur Transfers from Xinjiang to other parts of China from 2017 to 2020)

Since China’s annexation of Xinjiang in 1949, the minority ethnic group Uyghur Muslims, has faced systematic discrimination and oppression from the Chinese government in Beijing. To Beijing, the Xinjiang region is not a colony but a dependent city of China. Since Xinjiang is as an annexed autonomous region most of its Muslim minority population resists Beijing’s rule and campaign for independence, actions which the Chinese Communist Party interprets as a threat to state security.

During the Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, Beijing declared that ethnicity and religion were “obstacles to progress,” and the Uyghur faith was a “backwards custom.” In its quest for territorial integrity, Beijing has become intolerable of any other faith or belief system, denying the Uyghurs their culture. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese government enforced brutal crackdowns against the Uyghur faith and other religions. In response, a significant portion of the Uyghur population fled China under grounds of political asylum,.

The Chinese government’s attempts at forced assimilation and discriminatory policies have led to periodic protests in Xinjiang, and, unfortunately, extreme acts of terrorism. Beijing has defined the Uyghurs as terrorists due to extremist actions, providing justification for their surveillance state in Xinjiang as well as additional Islamophobic policies.

Under the guise of Samaritan rationale, the Chinese Government has resorted to committing a grievous humanitarian crime. To the public it seems as though the government is providing jobs that support Xinjiang residents and discourage them from radical fundamentalism; however, in reality they are subjecting Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to a two-part plan of ethnic cleansing. A plan dependent on the whitewashing of vicious crimes that target and harm Uyghur Muslims and their ideals.

The first part of the plan is reeducation. Officially called “vocational camps,” reeducation camps were installed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for the sole purpose of indoctrinating and discriminating against the Muslim population in China. These camps are a far cry from summer camps we in the United States are familiar with. Instead, they paint a grim picture of heavily fortified buildings where residents are prohibited from practicing their indigenous cultural and religious beliefs. Uyghur Muslims are forced to transition into model Chinese citizens who speak only Mandarin and firmly support Chinese nationalism. This brainwashing takes place in many torturous forms: pulling fingernails, electric batons to the head, sexual assault, and/ or forced ingestion of pills and injections under the disguise of disease prevention. Furthermore, when these “students” graduate, they are not released back to their families. Rather, they are being shipped off to face the second part of China’s indoctrination plan: forced labor camps.

Job and labor transfer of Uyghur Muslims from reeducation camps are considered a vital process of the reeducation process. A quote from “Work report of the People’s government of Moyu county” report from 2019 reads, “For every batch [of workers] that is trained, a batch of employment will be arranged and a batch will be transferred. Those employed need to receive thorough ideological education and remain in their jobs.” It is clear that Uyghur Muslims in China are being forcefully removed from their houses and being placed in hostile work conditions that discriminate against their minority group. According to the APSI report “Uyghurs for sale”, roughly 32,000 people were transferred out of the Xinjiang area and put into labor camps in other provinces in 2019. These labor transfers were highly lucrative for local governments. Local officials were paid a “per head price” for reeducating Uyghur muslims and for organizing labor transfers out of Xinjiang and into other factories. The Muslims were valued only for one purpose — cheap labor. Horrifyingly, advertisements for Uyghur Muslims have appeared online.

Source: ASPI, e: ‘1,000 minorities, awaiting online booking’ (1000少数民族,在线等预约), Baidu HR Forum (百度 HR吧), 27 November 2019, online. Translated from Chinese by ASPI.

Labor camps incarcerating Uyghur Muslims are hidden in plain sight, featuring pseudonyms that suggest nothing of the true nature of their work. This secrecy and the whitewashing of these forced labor schemes courtesy of the government, has made it easy for larger companies to source labor from them. Many influential brands have been accused of complicity in sourcing from these labor camps via their Chinese suppliers. The APSI report names the following 83 companies:

(Abercrombie & Fitch, Acer, Adidas, Alstom, Amazon, Apple, ASUS, BAIC Motor, BMW, Bombardier, Bosch, BYD, Calvin Klein, Candy, Carter’s, Cerruti 1881, Changan Automobile, Cisco, CRRC, Dell, Electrolux, Fila, Founder Group, GAC Group (automobiles), Gap, Geely Auto, General Electric, General Motors, Google, H&M, Haier, Hart Schaffner Marx, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, iFlyTek, Jack & Jones, Jaguar, Japan Display Inc., L.L.Bean, Lacoste, Land Rover, Lenovo, LG, Li-Ning, Mayor, Meizu, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Mitsumi, Nike, Nintendo, Nokia, The North Face, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Roewe, SAIC Motor, Samsung, SGMW, Sharp, Siemens, Skechers, Sony, TDK, Tommy Hilfiger, Toshiba, Tsinghua Tongfang, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Vivo, Volkswagen, Xiaomi, Zara, Zegna, ZTE)

The APSI report further delves into the labor transfer system in Xinjiang by focusing on specific case studies. One case study outlines the following systemic labor transfers: Uyghur Muslims from Pazawat County in Xinjiang are forcefully placed in Jiashi Vocational School, a reeducation camp in disguise. Once they graduate, some of the students are transferred to a forced labor camp in Anhui named “Haoyuanpeng Clothing Company,” which sources material to Fila, Anta, Nike, Yishun, Adidas, and Puma.

Source: ASPI, Haoyuanpeng Clothing Manufacturing Co. Ltd (HYP) Supply Chain

Raise the Voices contacted all companies, requesting answers for their involvement in this human rights violation and specifically questioned whether these companies had knowledge of 127 Uyghur individuals that are believed to be in forced labor situations. At the time of this article, no company has agreed to review a list of missing Uyghur laborers and confirm or deny the presence of these individuals in their affiliated factories.

Even worse, out of the 83 companies that Raise the Voices contacted, only 11 replied. These disparaging numbers are not only indicative of ambiguity but – to an extent – complicity as well. BMW, GE, H&M, Landrover, Lenovo, and Northface all denied involvement in the forced labor scheme taking place in Xinjiang. Adidas, Microsoft, and Abercrombie & Fitch were unable to confirm or deny their participation.

Their responses came in the form of generic PR replies that provided little to no information other than the “ongoing investigations” that these companies are conducting. Some companies reported that they have hotlines and/or whistleblowing policies in order to report abuses and any violations of their Code of Conduct policies. While these precautions are necessary and provide lines of defense against forced labor, they cannot be deemed sufficient to stop the problem at the root. Generic responses, vague information on websites, unclear auditing methods, incomplete sustainability reports are all different ways companies hide the true nature of their supply chains. As consumers – as humans – we cannot allow this whitewashing of human right crimes to continue to occur.

View more of Raise the Voices official Report Card here.

These companies are not only committing a crime if these allegations are true, but are directly betraying the consumers’ trust. Their lack of evidence and their minimal effort at denying these claims, display a lack of consideration for human rights. Whether these companies participated in the “buying” and “selling” of Uyghur Muslims is currently unclear, there are certain steps that all companies can take to prevent the prolonged and terrifying existence of labor camps worldwide. Companies hold a tremendous amount of wealth, granting them tremendous leverage against human rights abuses, like the one taking place in Xinjiang.

Pressuring governments that endorse coercive labor schemes to call for their immediate termination would be invaluable. Pressuring for the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29) and Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention would be paramount.

Not only are the companies at fault, but the Chinese government is also culpable and breached its own Constitution. Article 4 of the People’s Republic of China’s Constitution refers to the rights of minorities, claiming that:

all nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops a relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any act which undermines the unity of the nationalities or instigates division is prohibited.

People’s Republic of China’s Constitution

There are numerous other claims that China’s government is expected to uphold. For instance, 36 states that “no state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” Yet, reeducation camps go against these principles; the state is supposed to protect them, supposed to help them, yet the state is the perpetrator.

In June of 2019, twenty-two countries signed a joint statement to the United Nations High Commissioner that denounced the actions of the Chinese Government and criticised its surveillance of the Uyghurs and mass detention policies. The letter included a call to the Chinese government, insisting that China “uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China.” Very little has been done to remedy these atrocities so far.

Raise the Voices strongly condemns the actions of the Chinese government for the atrocities committed against the Uyghur population and insists that the companies listed in this article perform formal audits of their factories. Silence not only implies guilt but evidences complicity. Companies have the power to pressure the Chinese government to end its systemic discrimination against the Uyghurs.

While it is easy to feel helpless about a situation this dire, there are simple actions the rest of us can take to help Uyghur Muslims. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Contact the aforementioned companies to confirm their sourcing. Ask pointed questions regarding how they confirm their sourcing and the various firewalls they have in place to prevent forced labor.
  2. Increase pressure on foreign and local governments to take political action against Chinese concentration camps. Contact your representatives and request that they create legislation that requires corporations worldwide to be more forthcoming regarding their auditing methods, to be more thorough when assessing the social conditions of their factories, and to be more transparent regarding the results of their audits,
  3. Publicly voice your opinion on various social media platforms by posting and signing petitions. Common petitions on this human rights violation are: UN Petition to Free the Uyghurs (Change.org) and Close the Uyghur Camps (StopGenocide.org).

We are living in a time full of injustice and inequity, but also an era that welcomes change. The fight will not stop until human rights no longer becomes a privilege but commonplace. What will you do to help the Uyghur Muslims?