China is poised to harvest the first batch of cotton grown and managed under its own “sustainable” cotton certification program, which it established earlier this year as a counterpoint to the Better Cotton Initiative, whose members include Adidas, H&M, Ikea and Walmart.
“We have been living with Switzerland’s standards for years, but the country doesn’t even produce cotton,” Zhao Yan, a coordinator for the Weilai Cotton project, now known as the Cotton China Sustainable Development Program, told the South China Morning Post in April. “Now it is time to form our own national standards.”
The Geneva- and London-based Better Cotton Initiative, or BCI, has stayed mostly mum on the subject of the competitive standard, which the China Cotton Association and other industry organizations forged in response to growing animosity over Western allegations of human-rights abuses in the cotton-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
BCI incurred the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s wrath after it pulled out of all field-level activities in Xinjiang last October, citing “sustained allegations of forced labor and other human-rights abuses.” A subsequent BCI forced labor task force report, which characterized curtailed freedoms that prevented Xinjiang farmers from speaking freely about their circumstances, further inflamed tensions between the two.
In a story published last week, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet, described a 10,000-mu (4,666-hectare) stretch of cotton that will underpin the next phase of the Cotton China Sustainable Development Program, a “critical mechanism to counter Western dominance,” it noted. The field is owned by Xinjiang Guoxin Seed Co, one of the six Xinjiang cotton producers that signed up with the initiative to subvert the “global cotton rule-making system currently monopolized” by the BCI, which the outlet said has “apparently been manipulated by anti-China forces.”
“In Xinjiang, we have felt a sense of urgency to speed up setting up our own standard and building [a] homegrown cotton brand,” Liu Wenming, a local agricultural official in southern Xinjiang’s Shaya county, which accounts for 90 percent of China’s long-staple cotton yield, told the Global Times. “China is the world’s largest cotton producer and consumer, yet we face constraints and have been bullied by Western forces partly due to the lack of a unified and globally influential standard.”
The United Nations censures Beijing
The news comes as governments, industry bodies and civil society continue to denounce Beijing for its alleged detainment, coercive treatment and torture of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. At the United Nations on Thursday, a broad consortium of 43 countries took Chinese authorities to task for “credible-based reports” of the existence of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
“We have seen an increasing number of reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations, including reports documenting torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children,” French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said on behalf of the group at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. “Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uyghurs and members of other minorities.”
Beijing responded by issuing a statement from 62 countries that called for respect for “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states” and defended the situation in Xinjiang as China’s “internal affair.”
Zhang Jun, China’s UN ambassador, shot back at the “baseless” criticism at a news conference following the UN meeting, accusing the United States, which has repeatedly described China’s actions against the Uyghurs as “genocide,” for pressuring other nations to side against China.
“The U.S. and a few other countries are desperately trying to cover up their own terrible human rights record,” Zhang said. “The days when Western countries could bully and oppress developing countries are long gone.”
Human-rights campaigners ask G20 for tougher measures
Ahead of the G20 Heads of State and Government Summit in Rome on Oct. 30-31, End Uyghur Forced Labor, a coalition of 200 organizations, including Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch and the Worker Rights Consortium, urged world leaders to ban the import of products “tainted with Uyghur forced labor,” including cotton and yarn, electronics and polysilicon used to produce solar panels.
“The G7 made a strong commitment to removing forced labor from supply chains,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But until Chinese authorities are willing to allow real human-rights due diligence on the ground, states have to underpin their strong rhetoric with clear action, including bans on products that can’t be shown to have been made with full respect for human rights.”
At present, only the United States bans cotton, cotton-containing products, tomatoes and some polysilicon products from Xinjiang over forced-labor concerns, while a pending Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act could extend that restriction to all products from the region. The coalition pressed the European Union to proceed with a proposal that ensures “Uyghur forced labor goods are not sold on EU store shelves.” It also appealed to all G20 governments to introduce controls on goods produced or transported with forced labor through customs enforcement measures.
“With each passing day, Uyghurs continue to suffer devastation and hardship,” said Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “Governments must end corporate profits from Uyghur forced labor in global supply chains.”
In a veiled censure of Beijing on Friday, trade ministers from the Group of Seven restated their commitment to eradicate state-sponsored forced labor, stressing the importance of trade policy as “one of the important tools” in a “comprehensive approach.”
“We acknowledge that on any given day there are about 25 million people subject to forced labor worldwide, and call on all countries, multilateral institutions and businesses to work together, including with survivors of forced labor, to eradicate forced labor from global supply chains,” the ministers said in a joint statement following their virtual meeting on Friday. “We have taken seriously the task handed down to us by the G7 Leaders to identify areas for strengthened cooperation and collective efforts toward eradicating the use of all forms of forced labor from global supply chains.”
US lawmakers take aim at Chinese sportswear brands
On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) along with Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), sent a letter to Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Troy Miller seeking information on whether the agency has stopped imports from companies that have publicly endorsed or have advertised the use of cotton from Xinjiang.
The lawmakers, who helm the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said they were especially concerned about the continued availability of products from Chinese sportswear companies Anta, Peak and Li-Ning, which have “high-profile endorsements” from NBA players. The public endorsement of the use of cotton from Xinjiang by these companies, they said, “warrants special attention from CBP, as it raises specific concerns about the supply chains of these companies.”
“As a new National Basketball Association (NBA) season begins this week, we are very concerned about the sportswear companies Anta, Peak, and Li-Ning, which have high-profile endorsements from NBA players,” they wrote in a letter. “We do not want sports stars or other celebrity influencers to knowingly or unwittingly endorse goods made with forced labor or for U.S. consumers to buy these products, which remain available to purchase through Amazon.com and other direct-to-consumer platforms online.”
Merkley and McGovern, chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, previously sent a letter to the National Basketball Players Association expressing their concerns about contracts between NBA players and Anta, Li-Ning, and Peak. Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson and James Wiseman have both signed with Anta, while the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler reached a multi-year agreement with Li-Ning late last year. Lou Williams of the Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, has a signature sneaker with Peak.
“We believe that commercial relationships with companies that source cotton in Xinjiang create reputational risks for NBA players and the NBA itself,” the politicians wrote. “The U.S. State Department has determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, including the mass internment of over a million primarily Muslim ethnic minorities and the systematic use of forced labor to make goods for global export. The NBA and NBA players should not even implicitly be endorsing such horrific human-rights abuses.”