KELLY HAMMOND, 24 MAY 2021
By now, the ongoing human rights crisis in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang is well-known and well-documented. Governments around the world continue to denounce the illegal incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. They are also speaking out vehemently against reeducation camps, the forced separation of families, and the use of forced labor by Chinese companies operating in the region.
Although we as individuals can acknowledge and condemn these atrocities, the problems in Xinjiang often seem very far away from our daily lives. But, at the individual level, each one of us could unintentionally be complicit in supporting these forced labor camps through the products we consume.
The Import Limitations from Xinjiang
We live in a connected world, and the forced labor camps in Xinjiang produce at least three important global commodities that are deeply intertwined with global supply chains. The three most recognized commodities being exported from Xinjiang that could be making their way into your daily life are tomatoes, cotton, and polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels.
The human rights violations against the Uyghurs have recently resulted in legislation banning imports of certain cotton and tomato-based products into the United States. Even though activists have been trying to bring attention to these issues for a number of years, it was only in the past few months that the outright bans of products leaving Xinjiang came under increased scrutiny from US officials leading to the ban.
Over a year ago, reports emerged that Heinz Ketchup was being made with tomatoes sourced from Xinjiang. Recently, Japan’s top ketchup producer, Kagome, halted the use of tomatoes cultivated in Xinjiang from their production facilities. And, as the United States is facing an imminent ketchup package crisis, some China watchers speculated that an actual shortage of tomatoes could have in part caused the shortage.
The Apparel Industry and the Chinese Forced Labor Practices
Cotton has also come under scrutiny. Recent reports cited well-known apparel companies such as Nike for sourcing cotton from Xinjiang. Other companies were quicker to cut ties with suppliers in Xinjiang, and companies like Patagonia announced over a year ago that they no longer source products from the region. Nike lobbied against these bans as recently as November of 2020, and the company issued a statement in March 2021 stating that they no longer source products from Xinjiang.
These statements come at a cost. The repercussions of this decision have had a massive impact on Nike sales in China, where Chinese netizens are burning their Nikes and calling for an all-out boycott of the company. Nike is not alone in this predicament—other companies like H&M, Burberry, Adidas, and New Balance are also facing backlash from Chinese consumers who think it is beyond the jurisdiction of western-based companies to have a say in Chinese labor practices. One Chinese netizen is quoted as saying, “If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you.”
Given the growing size of the market in China for many globally-minded international companies, these statements against forced labor in Xinjiang are likely weighed against a potential loss of revenue. Many multinational companies are finally taking a stand that could perhaps indicate a larger shift in perspective on this human rights crisis that has been increasing in severity since 2017.
Polysilicon: The Increased Dependence on China
The most recent commodity connected to forced labor camps in Xinjiang is polysilicon, a key component in solar panels. The issue with solar panels is complex. In the past decade, American manufacturers of polysilicon were growing concerned about Chinese advances in solar technology, resulting in an export ban from the United States to China.
In effect, this ban led Chinese companies to build their own polysilicon factories, mostly in Xinjiang province. Now, China is a leading exporter of polysilicon, and US solar manufacturers depend on it. But labor organizations are calling for a ban on imports to the US and the European Union, citing growing concerns with forced Uyghur labor. In Xinjiang, economies of labor are inextricably linked to the production of technology that helps us fight against climate change.
Does Our Buying Power Matter?
None of these are simple issues. But as contentious globally-minded citizens who are concerned about human rights violations against Muslims living in Xinjiang, we must understand the implications of our buying power. Living in a world as interconnected and interdependent as we do, it is almost impossible to extricate ourselves from these flows of global capital. Yet, being aware of our purchases and weighing in on the conversations about what we consume is a step that we can all take in the right direction, and these concerns should extend to Muslims working under forced labor conditions in Xinjiang.
Kelly Hammond is an Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Arkansas. Her first book, China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, was released in November 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. Follow her on Twitter at @KellyAHammond
Cover Photo by Amber Martin on Unsplash
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights.