The Specter of Blood Cotton

"Being an Uyghur is a Crime" - Mihrigal Tursun

(detained at an Uyghur camp for the third time in 2015)

Mid-March witnessed an unprecedented boycott of a number of western brands including H&M and Nike all over China. This can be best described as cotton-sourcing juxtaposed against political gamesmanship. The incident traces its origins to the Xinjiang region of China, infamous for systematic allegations of exploiting forced Uyghur labour and dubbed as the tip of the iceberg concealing a larger problem of forced detention and China’s severe ill-treatment of its minorities. However, this recent upsurge has great economic and political ramifications in the supply chains of multinational fashion retailers such as Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. 

In January 2016, the Trump administration had banned all cotton imports from Xinjiang as well as consumer items manufactured in the area. The administration reiterated the US stance of declaring the existence of genocide in the Xinjiang region. This was a significant shift as the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that the material imported from Xinjiang was used in the manufacture of 1.5 billion garments that were manufactured by American brands and retailers. The question arises as to why the issue has gained the spotlight in March 2021 when it has long been a publicly contested subject in the international arena. 

Many observers have attributed this to the widening of political differences between China and the Western Nations in the aftermath of the pandemic. The tensions further escalated on March 22 when Britain, Canada and the European Union imposed sanction on China for its abominable treatment towards the Uyghurs. Soon there was a circulation of September 2020 screenshots of an H&M statement that cited "deep concerns" regarding forced labour in Xinjiang along with the confirmation that the organisation had stopped buying cotton from Xinjiang cultivators. China denied all such claims and in retaliation, the products of the protesting brands were removed from China’s e-commerce platforms including  JD.COM  and Alibaba Group’s Tmall. 

Not all brands chose to raise their voice. Hugo Boss, the German brand being a notable dissenter posting on its website: "We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton." However, later they claimed it to be unauthorized and it was deleted.  The foreign brands have repeatedly faced challenges regarding selling off their products to the 1.4 billion strong Chinese customer base and simultaneously adhering to the global customer’s demand for adherence to certain ethical norms.

The exploitation of the Uyghur minority however demands a greater exposition.

The Dehumanization of the Uyghur Community

In its 2020 report, the BBC had revealed that China is forcing hundreds and thousands of Uyghurs into manual labour in the cotton fields at Xinjiang, which produces a fifth of the world’s cotton. The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority that ethnically and culturally identify with Central Asian communities. They even speak in a language similar to that of Turkish. They have been detained in camps and allegedly subjected to torture, forced labour, sexual, psychological abuse, and forced sterilisation attempts. China has veiled such atrocities under the garb of such camps being ‘re-education’ sites aimed at salvaging the Uyghurs out of poverty. 

The mass migration of the Han Chinese (ethnic majority) to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has birthed a threat perception among the Uyghurs that their culture and livelihood are under threat by the ethnic majority. The crackdown upon this community can be traced to the Anti-Han and separatist movements that arose in the 1990's, spiralling into violence in 2009 when 200 people were killed in clashes at Xinjiang. The Chinese state laid the blame on the Uyghurs’ demand for a separate state. Since 2015, a million Uyghurs have been detained in camps in complete adherence to Xi Jinping’s goal of national ideology. 

The justifications have been based on the ground of threats of extremism directed at Chinese national integration and unity. The Chinese government maintains its actions are justified by citing the extremist and terrorist activities linked to the Uyghurs in the Baren Township riot, 1997 Urumqi bus bombings, 2014 Urumqi attack, 2011 Holtan attacks and the 2015 Aksu colliery attack, among others.

The China Cables, a collection of secret government documents leaked by Uyghurs in exile, had earlier revealed that the detention camps were run as high-security prisons marked by the autocratic disciplining of Uyghurs. A report by the China scholar Adrian Zenz revealed that Uyghur women who had more children than the legally permitted number were forced to receive intrauterine devices and injected with syringes that stopped their menstrual cycle, resulting in a massive decline of the population growth, with growth rates falling by 84% in the two largest Uyghur districts between 2015 and 2018. 

Gang rapes, sexual torture, forcible co-habitation of Uyghur homes by government workers are common under the ‘Pair up and Become a Family’ policy with the aim of promoting ‘ethnic unity’. The extensive use of surveillance technology includes intelligent monitoring systems, police checkpoints and drones, and the Ministry of Public Security has invested in the Skynet and Sharp Eyes Project for video camera facial recognition.

When President Xi Jinping declared that all practising religions in China should be Chinese in orientation, the crackdowns rose to unprecedented scales, resulting in the complete eradication of Uyghur culture. Wearing headscarves, veils and other Islamic dress in the region is completely forbidden which led to a 2014 protest in Alakaga, Xinjiang, when 25 women were detained for wearing headscarves.

The attack on Islamic religion is evidenced by the systematic destruction of mosques, Muslim shrines and cemeteries, with The Guardian stating that over one-third of the mosques and religious sites in China suffered ‘significant structural damage’. There has been a complete breakdown of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and expression, with the Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti being sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, and the disappearance of Rahile Dawut, an Uyghur anthropologist. The cultural assimilation and integration of the Uyghurs is encouraged by promoting marriages between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese through schemes such as the ‘Incentive Measures Encouraging Uighur-Chinese Intermarriage’ scheme which includes a cash reward of $1,450 per annum for the first five years of marriage. 

The International Reaction

22 countries have sent a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemning the mass detention of Uyghurs. The European Union had in March 2021 sanctioned Zhu Hailun, the proponent of the indoctrination program. The United States Customs and Border Protection had issued five Withhold Release Orders (WRO) on products produced by state-sponsored forced labour such as hair products made in the industrial park at Xinjiang and cotton produced by the Yili Zhouwan Garment Manufacturing Company and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business Company.

It has to be noted that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a vocal critic of Islamophobia has maintained silence on Uyghur persecution, stating that he didn’t "know much about" the scale of Uyghur mistreatment and stating that China had helped them when "they were at the rock bottom". The 57 country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has, however, mentioned "disturbing reports" of China’s crackdown on Muslims, but has backtracked on its publication. 

The process of Sinicization is perhaps best amplified in the words: "You people are not Turks. Uighurs are Chinese. You are one of us, Chinese" as recalled by Mohammed, an Uyghur from Southern Xinjiang, who had been detained for seven months in June 2018, held in a camp with his hands chained together in a room with 35 others.

The tale of Blood Cotton haunts the collective conscience of the world.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.