By Nefeli Kanellou,
In the last two weeks everyone seems to be talking about Xinjiang cotton and the sanctions that China has imposed on western clothing brands. But what is this Xinjiang cotton exactly and how is it linked to human rights abuse, defamation and boycotts?
Xinjiang is a part of China, where a large part of the global cotton production resides. The reason that the region’s cotton got a bad reputation derives from allegations regarding forced labour. Furthermore, Xinjiang is the home of the Uighur minority in China. Uighurs are a Muslim minority and ethnically they are closer to Central Asia than China. The religious and ethnic differences have led to turbulence in the area resulting in a crackdown and the relocation of Han Chinese people in order to restore the balance and proceed with a Sinicization of the region.
During the last years there have been numerous media reports, pleads from human right groups and testimonies by members of the Uighur minority concerning grave violations of human rights. The allegations include: unlawful imprisonment, sexual assaults, detention in concentration camps and forced labour in the cotton fields, among other places.
Even though these allegations have been in the spotlight for quite some time, no one seemed to be eager to do something about it. Until now.
H&M and Nike issued a statement last year expressing their concern about the allegations of forced labour linked to Xinjiang cotton. The Chinese Communist Party brought it in the spotlight and threatened the companies. After the whole issue was made public again, the US decided to ban all the imports of Xinjiang cotton. Other countries, like Canada, the UK and also the EU, decided to join the action and imposed sanctions on China themselves on the grounds of dire violations against human rights.
China’s response was immediate. H&M was banned from all the major online shopping sites and applications and many of their physical stores were closed. A boycott was also promoted, not only for Nike and H&M but for other brands as well, mainly those that are part of the Better Cotton Initiative, an organization that had already suspended all activities in Xinjiang and had stopped licensing the region’s cotton since October.
The countries that imposed sanctions on China do not have it any better. China voiced its anger towards those countries and said that it will proceed by suing some UK officials who publicly condemned human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang, saying that these statements were false and it constituted a case of defamation against the country.
Despite the fact that they are merely treated them as allegations, a great number of international media stations, such as BBC and Reuters, have conducted very thorough researches concerning the Xinjiang situation, including testimonies of Uighurs, and the evidence keeps piling up so that we cannot consider them as allegations anymore. These companies took a huge stand by endangering their position in the market and advocating for human rights.
The dilemma profit vs ethics is a hard one and standing up to a huge economic power such as China is never easy. We need more initiatives like this and more companies capable of taking hard decisions in order to make a turn for the better, especially in the fashion industry where the allegations of forced and child labour are frequent and never addressed.
- CNN, Xinjiang cotton: H&M and Nike are facing a boycott in China over Uyghur forced labour statements. Available here.
- BBC News, Xinjiang cotton: Western clothes brands vanish as backlash grows. Available here.
- BBC News, Uyghurs: Xinijiang cotton ban is self-defeating, China tells H&M and Nike. Available here.
- The New York Times, H&M and other brands face backlash from Chinese consumers. Available here.