What if I told you that there are concentration camps in today's world? Concentration camps that host not a few hundred or a few thousand people -- but likely over a million? According to a new report, China's treatment of the Uyghur minority leaves no room for interpretation. The report features mentions of torture, rape, mass detention, forced labor, and widespread surveillance -- and a lot of companies are taking advantage of it.
Over the past years, reports have increasingly highlighted that something very dark is happening in the Xinjiang region of China. Xinjiang, China's largest region, is also home to a large Uyghur minority. The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim population and have attracted the wrath of the Chinese government. According to then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, China is committing genocide in Xinjiang in a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs”. While Pompeo's statement may be politicized, several high-profile investigations have highlighted the inhumane practices carried out in Xinjiang.
In 2020, a Pulitzer-winning investigation by Buzzfeed found that China was blurring its maps where the concentration camps are located, showing a large-scale system of detainment. Other investigations by BBC and New York Times have shed more light on the scale and impact of China's practices. In 2018, another UN report estimated the number of detainees in Xinjiang between a few tens of thousands and one million (though other estimates claim the real figure is over one million). This report practically forced China to admit the existence of what it calls "vocational training centers", but said that these were necessary to counter the "terrorism" and "extremism" from Xinjiang.
Despite these damning facts, China continued on with business as usual. The country didn't allow any external investigators to see the camps for themselves, and companies (including western companies) continued to benefit from the forced labor in Xinjiang. But the new UN report leaves no room for plausible deniability.
Xinjiang produces the majority of cotton used in China's textile industry (84% is a commonly cited figure), and a lot of cotton for western companies as well. In addition, the region has rich fossil fuel and mineral resources, including coal, gas, lithium, zinc, and lead. Xinjiang also produces almost half of the world's polysilicon, which is important in the production of solar panels.
According to the new UN report, much of these resources are extracted and processed using forced labor. The report also mentions "labor transfer schemes", where Uyghurs from Xinjiang are forced to relocate and work elsewhere in China.
The report then naively asks China to release the people who have been arbitrarily detained and investigate human rights abuses. That seems to make little sense. China didn't exactly slip and fall into detaining a million people in concentration camps that it then refused to acknowledge. As Justine Nolan, a professor of law and justice at UNSW Sydney notes, [conv], that's like asking a fox to guard the hen house.
China won't even allow independent observers to come and see the camps, let alone carry out any investigation, they even tried to stop the report from being published -- and as the UN report leaves no doubt large-scale arbitrary detention is occurring, no one in good faith could continue doing business as usual.
Lots of companies benefit from forced labor in Xinjiang. Whether it's cotton or other products, a 2020 report from Australia [..] found that dozens of high-ranking companies likely have blood on their hands. These companies include the likes of Adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Calvin Klein, Dell, Google, H&M, Hisense, Hitachi, Huawei, Lacoste, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Nike, Nintendo, Sony, Victoria’s Secret, Volkswagen, and Zara.
The revelation of the relocation transfer schemes is also important: it means that if you want to make sure your company's product is clean, it's not enough to simply avoid working with Xinjiang -- you need to be certain that you're not benefitting indirectly from human rights abuses. Understandably, it's hard for companies to avoid cheap labor; it's easy to just take the stuff and not worry about where it comes from.
But at some point, you have to wonder if this is really worth financing modern slavery and concentration camps.
"Until there is broader access and independent verification of working conditions in Xinjiang, business should now assume that goods connected with this region are tainted with modern slavery," Nolan concludes in an article for The Conversation.
Ultimately, until there is true transparency and independent verification of the conditions in Xinjiang, businesses should assume that goods connected to the region are tainted by modern slavery -- and we as consumers also carry a responsibility.