The White House has criticized China’s state-run news and social-media campaign against American, European and Japanese brands that are steering clear of cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region due to its links to forced labor and other human-rights abuses against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.
“American consumers and consumers everywhere deserve to know that the goods they are buying are not made with forced labor,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Friday. “Many companies are standing up for consumers’ rights. The international community, in our view, should oppose China’s weaponizing of private companies’ dependence on its markets to stifle free expression and inhibit ethical business practices.”
She noted that the Biden administration is “closely” watching events unfold.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters in a briefing later that China’s targeting of Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Nike, Uniqlo and others amounted to a state-sanctioned “corporate and consumer boycott.” H&M appeared to draw most of the ire, with searches for the Swedish retailer’s name on China’s biggest e-commerce websites and service apps, such as Alibaba’s Tmall, JD.com and Pinduoduo, turning up empty, and H&M’s official Tmall store redirecting to an error page. The locations of H&M outlets in China also seemingly vanished on Apple Maps on the iPhone and Baidu Maps.
“We support and encourage businesses to respect human rights in line with the [United Nations] guiding principles on business and human rights,” she said. “We commend and stand with companies that adhere to the U.S. law and ensure products we are consuming are not made with forced labor.”
Both the Biden and Trump administrations, which have called China’s cultural and religious crackdown of Xinjiang’s 12 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities nothing less than genocide, have deployed a raft of sanctions and trade restrictions that include the barring of all cotton products from Xinjiang.
Experts believe that 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslims are being held in internment camps and prisons in and around Xinjiang, where, in addition to experiencing torture, sexual abuse and brainwashing, they might be pressed into low-skilled manufacturing, such as the production of textiles and apparel.
A December study by the Center for Global Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates that half a million Uyghurs are forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” program. Other mass labor-transfer schemes “embed” Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang in factory jobs throughout China, with the goal, according to one leaked Chinese document, of reducing the Uyghur population density in Xinjiang while “influenc[ing], fus[ing] and assimilat[ing] Uyghur minorities” into the dominant Han culture.
Other Uyghurs have reportedly had their freedoms severely curtailed, are forbidden from practicing Islam or speaking their language and are subject to high-tech surveillance, including facial recognition systems.
China has vociferously denied these allegations, insisting that its measures offer Uyghurs a path out of poverty and away from radicalism. The Chinese Foreign Ministry earlier this week said that recent joint Western sanctions “flagrantly breach international law and basic norms governing international relations [and] grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
The nonprofit Human Rights Watch said Friday, however, that companies should resist Beijing’s threats and “stand firm in their opposition to forced labor.”
“The Chinese government is showing its true colors by pressuring companies to be complicit in abuses rather than working together to end violations against Turkic Muslims,” Sophie Richardson, the organization’s China director, said in a statement. “This is a litmus test of companies’ upholding their human-rights commitments.”