U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned China’s “baseless” retaliatory sanctions on individuals in Canada and the United States in an escalating dispute over the ruling Communist Party’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
He also warned that Beijing’s news and social-media onslaught against multinational brands raising concerns about forced labor in the region draws further attention to its actions in Xinjiang, where authorities are believed to have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslims in internment camps as part of a broader campaign of repression and assimilation in violation of the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention.
“Beijing’s attempts to intimidate and silence those speaking out for human rights and fundamental freedoms only contribute to the growing international scrutiny of the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” Blinken said in a statement on Saturday.
The United States “stands in solidarity with Canada, the [United Kingdom], the [European Union] and other partners and allies around the world in calling on the [People’s Republic of China] to end the human-rights violations and abuses against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang and to release those arbitrarily detained,” he added.
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry has barred Gayle Manchin and Tony Perkins, chair and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, from entering the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macau or having financial dealings with Chinese entities. Canadian Member of Parliament Michael Chong and the Canadian House of Commons’s subcommittee on international human rights were also added to the sanctions list.
“They must stop political manipulation on Xinjiang-related issues, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs in any form and refrain from going further down the wrong path. Otherwise, they will get their fingers burnt,” the Foreign Ministry statement said.
Chinese authorities had previously imposed sanctions on individuals and entities in the United Kingdom and European Union following a joint rebuke by Western powers that took aim at four Chinese officials and a Xinjiang public security bureau last week. The coordinated effort, the nations said in a joint statement, sought to send a “clear message” to China that the human-rights abuses will not be tolerated by the international community.
Beijing’s pressure campaign against brands such as Adidas, H&M, Nike and Uniqlo, which erupted last week into boisterous calls to boycott the companies and the en-masse termination of dozens of celebrity endorsements, shows little sign of abating.
“I don’t think a company should politicize its economic behavior,” Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang government spokesman, said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday morning. “Can H&M continue to make money in the Chinese market? Not anymore. To rush into this decision and get involved in the sanctions is not reasonable. It’s like lifting a stone to drop it on one’s own feet.”
Elijan Anayat, a spokesperson of the Xinjiang regional government, refuted the allegations of forced labor, telling briefing attendees that anti-China forces fabricated the rumors to attack the region’s textile industry. “We Chinese people are reasonable,” he said. “Those companies boycott Xinjiang cotton, naturally we don’t want to buy your products.”
H&M has borne the brunt of China’s ire, with several outlets across the country shut down by mall owners and their brand billboards removed. H&M products, too, have vanished from Chinese e-commerce platforms, as have the locations of its stores from Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches.
Perhaps fearing a similar backlash, brands such as PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Zara owner Inditex, appeared to have scrubbed online public statements repudiating forced labor in Xinjiang and distancing themselves from suppliers in the region. VF Corp., which operates Timberland, The North Face and Vans, seemingly did the same last week, only to float a shorter “XUAR Global Compliance” statement Monday confirming that none of its brands source products or any raw material from Xinjiang.
“VF follows the law everywhere we do business and we have a strong legal compliance program,” the new statement, which makes no mention of forced labor, said. “We have taken additional steps to ensure our compliance with recent U.S. government actions regarding the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”
Hugo Boss originally posted its support of Xinjiang cotton on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, last week, reaffirming its continued use. A spokesperson from Hugo Boss later told Sourcing Journal, however, that the German brand “has not procured any goods originating in the Xinjiang region from direct suppliers.” The Weibo comment has since been deleted, prompting celebrity spokespeople Li Yifeng, Zhu Zhengting and Wang Linkai to split from the company, according to their agents on Weibo over the weekend.
Japanese sportswear maker Asics, too, has released a statement denying that a similar post it made on Weibo was its official stance. “We are currently clarifying that the statement in question was unauthorized as is not our official corporate position on this matter,” a spokesperson said. Li Yifeng, who also endorsed Asics in China, dropped the brand in response. Fila China (which is operated by Chinese sportswear company Anta) and Muji continue to publicly promote Xinjiang cotton.
Meanwhile, UN human-rights experts raised “serious concerns” about the alleged detention and forced labor of Uyghurs Monday and called for unfettered access to Xinjiang to investigate reports of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced sterilization and forced labor.
“We are deeply concerned by these allegations which, if proven, would constitute grave human-rights abuses,” the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, one of eight UN independent human-rights mandates to flag concerns over China’s treatment of Uyghurs, said in a statement. “We stand ready to strengthen our dialogue with the government of China at the earliest opportunity and welcome the government’s prompt response to these allegations as well as its willingness to continue the constructive engagement with us.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at the news briefing Monday that he welcomed the presence of UN experts but that their visit shouldn’t be used as a form of “political manipulation.”
“The purpose of this visit should be to promote interaction and cooperation, and not to carry out so-called investigation on the presumption of guilt,” Zhao added.
Editor’s note: The story was updated on March 31, 2021, with a statement from Asics.