The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new U.S. rule could change what you wear — and intervene in a genocide

Farmers picking cotton in Hami in China's northwestern Xinjiang region on Oct. 14, 2018. (STR/Source: AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Laura T. Murphy is professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Sheffield Hallam University, and the author of “The New Slave Narrative: The Battle Over Representations of Contemporary Slavery.” Rian Thum is senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and the author of “The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History.”

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced what seemed to be a narrow, targeted rule: a ban on all cotton-related imports from an obscure Chinese corporate entity. Though it arrived with little fanfare, the ban is a bold move with the potential to disrupt two surprisingly interconnected systems — the global fashion industry and China’s unfolding genocide of the Uighurs.

The link between these two systems is an unusual entity called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) — a group that is at once a semi-autonomous arm of the Chinese government, a state-owned business and a paramilitary organization.

Its operations are enormous and diverse. The massive conglomerate governs 10 cities and 37 towns, holding more land than Ireland and governing a registered population of 2.43 million. It owns 14 publicly listed companies and at least 4,000 other enterprises. It runs schools and universities, radio and television stations and newspapers. It grows much of the cotton in our clothes and the tomatoes in our ketchup. It operates a construction business, transfers Chinese settlers to the Uighur region — and is involved in overseeing and equipping concentration camps.

The chances are quite high that most Americans own or have consumed something mined, grown or manufactured by the XPCC. About 22 percent of the world’s cotton comes from China, 30 percent of which is grown by the XPCC. And there’s currently no way for a company to guarantee that its cotton or textiles are not being cultivated or manufactured by the XPCC.

Because of its size, the XPCC has played a prominent role in Beijing’s efforts to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs. It runs “vocational training centers” and engages in “transfers of surplus ethnic minority labor” to its textile processing industries — favored government euphemisms for concentration camps and involuntary labor.

The recent U.S. ban on XPCC cotton products seeks to intervene in the XPCC’s egregious participation in this forced-labor regime. It is perhaps the widest-reaching customs ban on imports the United States has ever made.

Clothing companies and apparel industry trade groups have lobbied against measures like this for months. That is because Xinjiang (and XPCC) cotton flows to almost every corner of the global clothing market. The XPCC operates an opaque network of thousands of subsidiary companies, and it is involved in hundreds of joint ventures with private and state-owned companies. To fully root out XPCC cotton and textiles will mean divesting from a vast supply chain.

Thus, the ban could effectively mean a departure from China for many companies, including widely recognized international brands. Companies are already beginning to diversify their supply chains outside China since covid-19 slowed exports to a near-standstill early in the pandemic. This human rights pressure seems well timed to encourage them to expand those efforts. While this will present a logistical challenge to some companies, their complicity in this oppressive regime could incur much higher reputational — and legal — risks.

For the Uighurs and other affected minority citizens of Xinjiang, the stakes could not be higher. These forced-labor programs are not merely driven by profit — they are also a mechanism of cultural genocide.

Forcing people into “labor-intensive” corporatized wage labor effectively eliminates the largely independent economy that was the bedrock of rural Uighur life and culture. It removes farmers from the subsistence agriculture they relied upon and often the very villages in which they lived. It destroys the small-scale independent trading and manufacturing that have allowed urban Uighurs to remain fairly independent of Chinese society and norms. And it forces successful, trained professionals and businesspeople (filmmakers, dentists, nurses and other medical professionals, restaurateurs, business owners, engineers, marketing professionals) into work as factory drones.

The forced-labor regime explicitly aims to create a docile, indoctrinated citizenry. Forcing Uighurs into wage labor puts them more fully under the surveillance and control of the colonial Chinese state. They are often stripped of their land, their homes, their families and their livelihoods to take on XPCC jobs, and they are forced to reject their language and their religion in favor of speaking Chinese and memorizing Xi Jinping Thought as requirements of their worker education.

Last week’s import ban is a substantial step toward eradicating U.S. consumer, corporate and government complicity in Uighur forced labor, and it is likely to have real impact. But to eliminate the problem, it will need to be followed with a further explicit ban on all XPCC- and forced-labor-made products, and more pressure on companies to disengage from Xinjiang, where no one’s rights to choose one’s work, to free movement and to practice one’s culture and religion can be guaranteed.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Congress has a chance to strike a blow against Chinese forced labor

Josh Rogin: The coronavirus brings new and awful repression for Uighurs in China

Ziba Murat: My mother may be a victim of China’s concentration camps. Disney’s ‘Mulan’ is a whitewash.

Bill Drexel: A totalitarian surveillance city in China should be a warning to us all

Fred Hiatt: In China, every day is Kristallnacht

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and James Leibold: Your favorite Nikes might be made from forced labor. Here’s why.