China Demands Firms Stay Apolitical Amid Allegations Of Human Rights Abuses In Xinjiang

Chinese officials on March 29 warned foreign brands to remain apolitical after the firms raised concerns about the sourcing of cotton in the far-western autonomous region of Xinjiang where Uyghur Muslims have suffered forced labour and detention. This comes amid a broader condemnation by Chinese authorities, claiming that the United States and other Western nations are working to destabilize the nation of approximately 1.4 billion, Al Jazeera reports.

A large part of China’s condemnation was targeted towards Swedish retailer H&M, while Chinese authorities continue to deny that genocide, human rights abuses, and ideological indoctrination are taking place in Xinjiang. The Wall Street Journal indicates that a DoubleThink Lab analysis on Chinese state-led disinformation demonstrates the animosity that Communist Party-affiliated social media accounts have sparked against the companies that are now being threatened with lost revenue. As the nationwide consumer boycott intensified in the previous week, China’s leading ICT provider Huawei removed Nike and Adidas from its app store. 

H&M stated its desire to regain the trust of consumers in China, according to the New York Times, while Nike and Adidas have yet to respond to either remark from Chinese officials or the nationwide movement to boycott the companies. A spokesman for Xinjiang’s regional government Xu Guixiang rejected allegations of genocide in the region and claims they are undermining efforts to punish true crimes against humanity. Guixiang suggests that companies “should [not] politicize its economic behaviour,” citing H&M’s role in the social media storm, Al Jazeera reports.

After the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and the European Union launched a coordinated sanction on Chinese officials, Beijing responded with sanctions against two American officials, according to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and punitive measures against European individuals, institutes, and businesses, CNBC notes. State-controlled organizations in China have labeled H&M’s behavior as reprehensible and spotlighted comments on social media from Chinese residents who call for the company’s expulsion from the country. 

In 2020 and 2021, revelations surfaced regarding human rights abuses committed by China against Uyghur Muslims, identified as a repressed ethnic group by international rights organizations. The ethnic isolation campaign has hurt individuals and traumatized many families, and according to a report published by CNN on March 25, family separation has been a common practice perpetuated by Chinese authorities.

The public and private sectors in Western nations whose voices are growing must take bold action in condemning China’s repressive actions and never acquiesce to China’s insistence that allegations of genocide per the United Nations’ definition in Xinjiang are false. Recently, according to Reuters, U.S. President Joe Biden suggested an infrastructural plan to the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to respond to the prospect of China’s growing hegemony through its Belt and Road initiative. Amid this cooperative step forward, talks and actions between the two Western leaders must also make the human rights abuses in Xinjiang a central issue in the topic of foreign policy with China. 

Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group living mostly in Inner Asia, including the region of Xinjiang, a repressed region that is autonomous in name only, similar to Tibet. In recent decades Xinjiang has seen a “mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) to Xinjiang, and the Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat,” (BBC). Since 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in reeducation camps as part of a Chinese government crackdown, while many of those not detained are being regularly surveilled, their religious freedoms restricted, and even forcibly sterilized, according to the Council of Foreign Relations.

Following the recent departure of former President Donald Trump, who resisted sanctioning Chinese officials in 2018 to allegedly protect trade, President Joe Biden has worked more closely with other Western nations and taken a bolder stance against China’s actions in Xinjiang. In the private sector of Western nations, companies have continued to face mounting pressure from human rights groups, social media, and investors to restrict or cut ties with Chinese markets that involve coerced labour in Xinjiang. 

Nations, companies, and international actors opposing the repressive activities in Xinjiang must continue to take strong action against China and elevate their responses in a manner that effectively communicates to China that its crimes against humanity are unacceptable. If action is not taken, it will be a green light for the Chinese Communist Party to move forward with ideological indoctrination and repression against an ethnic group of people who already suffer the loss of family and livelihood. While it may be important and profitable for Western companies like H&M and Nike to foster a beneficial relationship with Chinese consumers, the alleged atrocities taking place in China’s westernmost region must be kept in the front of social conscience during this ongoing demand for accountability and change.

Benjamin Fikhman