Cottoning on to China’s secret

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The aftermath of recent BBC investigations have or should have left the world reeling. The world has most likely slept easy these past few years with the reality of China’s so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang and the horror that occurs there, generally eclipsed by other news. While more recently news outlets in the UK are beginning to pay greater attention to the ongoing situation, much has not been picked up by the greater public. 

In 2019, the BBC and Guardian reported that a document had been leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), which confirmed the doubts many had about the official line taken by the Chinese government. These documents named the ‘China Cables’, included a memo sent out by the deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party to the people in charge of the camps: it made clear that these camps were not voluntary re-education camps designed to try and counter extremism and in fact, millions of mainly Uighur Muslims were being detained illegally and without trial. 

To the press and outside world, China is anxious to portray these camps as not prisons, as places to prevent future terrorism from people they felt were at risk of being susceptible to extremist beliefs. Another leaked document shows the reasons for detainment, the BBC highlights some of the examples: 

‘Row 598 contains the case of a 38-year-old woman with the first name Helchem, sent to a re-education camp for one main reason: she was known to have worn a veil some years ago. It is just one of a number of cases of arbitrary, retrospective punishment. Others were interned simply for applying for a passport – proof that even the intention to travel abroad is now seen as a sign of radicalisation in Xinjiang. In row 66, a 34-year-old man with the first name Memettohti was interned for precisely this reason, despite being described as posing “no practical risk”. And then there’s the 28-year-old man Nurmemet in row 239, put into re-education for “clicking on a web-link and unintentionally landing on a foreign website”. Again, his case notes describe no other issues with his behaviour.’ 

The conditions inside are equally barbaric; those who managed to leave spoke of the horrors that occurred there, of the suffering they endured and the fear they felt for their family and friends who were not as fortunate as them. Inside the camps the inmates are subjected to high levels of control in their day-to-day life, high security, brainwashing as well as physical and mental torture. Ӧmir Bekali, a Uighur Muslim, recounts his previous incarceration at one of these camps to Varsity, he said ‘he was beaten “half to death” and made to stand facing a wall for twenty-four hours without food or drink on some occasions, put in a Tiger Chair for a day in others, or simply placed into solitary confinement in rooms lined with plastic, intended to avoid suicide risks.’

However, more recently there have been accounts of slave labour, especially on the cotton fields. China is the world’s largest exporter of cotton with the Xinjiang province making up a large proportion of that. This means that due to the scale of the camps, a lot of the world’s cotton is sourced from slave labour from the enforced detainment of the Muslim population in this region.  

A coalition of human rights groups has formed called ‘End Uyghur Forced Labour’. On their website they state their ‘Call to Action’: ‘we are calling on brands and retailers to exit the Uyghur Region at every level of their supply chain, from cotton to finished products, to prevent the use of forced labour of Uyghurs and other groups in other facilities, and to end relationships with suppliers supporting the forced labour system.’ 

Due to the alienation between companies and their supply chain, a lot of well-known brands are accused of using cotton from this area; for example, Global Legal Action Network has got unassailable evidence that Muji, Uniqlo, Ikea and H&M have been using cotton from the Xinjiang province. 

Action has been taken but all this is done retrospectively. It is tiring how often the fashion and beauty world can be accused of severe failures; companies are continuously putting out fires and dealing with the problems that constantly crop up from the alienation of brand and supply chains. 

It reminds me of a sadistic Whac-a-Mole, where large corporations slam down on any issues that arise, consumers, however, are only able to see them with their weapon of choice in hand but not able to see clearly whether they hit their target or not. The easiest way to win this would be to scrap the status quo that we have become so grossly attached to and take an axe to the whole, twisted programme. In a time where the sanctity of our home pleasures has never been more apparent to us and at the time of year when warmth and compassion are the moods of the season, there should be more outrage. 

It is worth noting that the cotton that comes from this region has also gone into making the PPE that is keeping us safe. The masks that we use to protect those around us could be made by one of the millions imprisoned for nothing more than their religion. Surely this must be the line that the UK draws to say enough is enough? Frankly, these companies who are continuously in the wrong can no longer be seen as a production line that simply hasn’t caught up to the times yet and such excuses only continue to allow them to keep their tight grip over the fashion world: it is at best negligence or at worst a complete failure in human rights, and continued ignorance or turning a blind-eye has made us all complicit. That does not sit well with me.

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