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Lisa Navarrette, MS

“For the first time since the heyday of the antebellum South, cotton slavery is once again polluting the local economy on an industrial scale,” said Nury Turkel. [1] Born into a “re-education camp,” Turkel, a Uyghur, witnessed first-hand the brutal persecution of his people by the Chinese government. 

The Uyghurs are a Turkic group that settled in what is now the north-central region of Mongolia. The first accounts date back to the 3rd century A.D. Historically, they were a sedentary village-dwelling people who lived in a network of oases formed in the valleys and lower slopes of the mountains and Orhon River. The cities of Urumqi, Xinjiang, and Kashgar are located on the historic Silk Road bordering Russia and China, making this area rich in trade. The land is also rich in natural resources and minerals, providing the perfect climate for cotton cultivation. This ancestral land is now known as the province of Xinxiang, China.

Recently, the Chinese government has increased its persecution against populations it deems “not Chinese enough.” Many groups have become targets, including the Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Hui Muslims, and of course, the Uyghurs. China unveiled its social credit system for all Chinese citizens a few years ago, which monitors the coming and going of people using closed-circuit cameras, and the monitoring of phone apps and purchases. This information is then used to create a social-credit score- a system of ranking each person of their “citizen worthiness.” Unlike a U.S. credit score used to rate credit-worthiness, this social credit score affects where you live, what jobs you can obtain, and where your children can attend school. Those who appear not to hold the government’s values are placed on the government watch list or even worse.

To infiltrate the Uyghurs in Xinxiang, Chinese spies are sent to live with families in the “Becoming Family” program. They report anything they hear or see that is contrary to the government’s prescribed ideals. Anything “suspicious” is reported, from food and alcohol consumption to littering. Because of these reports, parents are sent to “re-education camps” and their children to Chinese Mandarin boarding schools for government indoctrination. 

Using Silicon Valley-level AI, the government seeks to create a totalitarian state. With the use of high-tech military camps which employ listening devices in homes, surveillance cameras, and checkpoints, no one is safe in Xinxiang province. In recent years, the world has watched as the Chinese government has imprisoned approximately 3 million Uyghurs in “re-education camps.” These camps are reminiscent of the concentration camps of World War II, where the appalling treatment of prisoners has been reported. The government themselves have supplied images of such camps showing Uyghur men in blue coveralls sitting in the yard with barbed wire fences and armed guards about. Those released have recounted their horrific stories of beatings, torture, rape, waterboarding, and even abortions and sterilization. Forced labor is a hallmark of the “re-education camp,” and its exports bring in billions of dollars to the Chinese government each year.

As mentioned, the province of Xinxiang is rich in mineral and agricultural resources, producing about 20% of the world’s cotton supply. This cotton is used to maintain factory contracts with American companies, including Adidas, H&M, and Uniqlo. To keep the “cotton flowing,” the government enacted “work placements”- essentially forced labor- upon the Uyghurs. 

According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), China’s 2020 textile and apparel exports netted $291.2 billion, up 7.2% from the previous year. [2] Eighty-four percent of China’s entire cotton crop comes from Xinxiang, cultivated under the forced labor of an ethnic minority. It is modern-day slavery. It is difficult to measure the profit made by the American companies listed above from the supply of Xinxiang cotton. Last year Adidas made $25.122 billion, H&M $22.40 billion, and Uniqlo $2.02 billion. Billions upon billions of dollars of profit were made directly off the backs of the Uyghurs. 

In June, the U.S. passed a ban on cotton from forced Uyghur labor. [3] The Uyghur Forced Labor and Prevention Act gives U.S. authorities the power to block or seize cotton from the Xinxiang region and impose penalties on companies of up to $250,000. The ban includes not only cotton from Xinxiang directly into the U.S. but also products exported from the European Union or Britain that contain Xinxiang cotton. 

Many in the fashion industry are scrambling to comply. They say it is almost impossible to know where the cotton comes from after the ginning stage (separating the fiber from the seeds) because it is here that cotton from all over the world is processed together. While the Chinese government uses A.I. to control its people, the same technology is used to unravel the cotton supply chain. Tech companies such as TrusTrace, Supply Shift, and Textile Genesis plan to use blockchain and artificial intelligence to trace supply chains. In this way, companies will be able to show the cotton’s complete “digital chain of custody.” The U.S. government also announced human rights-linked sanctions against Chinese companies that supply material or parts to Apple, Ralph Lauren, Google, HP, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, and Muji from resources curated in Xinxiang. 

Such a ban is just one step necessary in combatting the ongoing persecution and genocide of the Uyghurs. Some Uyghurs make it out of the camps and leave China behind. Such is the case with Nury Turkel, the now-American attorney, foreign policy expert, human rights advocate, and vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. However, despite or because of this success, his family members are openly detained, harassed, and imprisoned by the CCP. When a Uyghur doctor living in Washington spoke out against the CCP’s policies in the region, her sister, Gulshan Abbas, and aunt disappeared in September 2018. [4] These family members were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for “terrorism” because their American family members spoke out to expose the truth. 

The Uyghurs are not the only ones in China feeling the crushing weight of the Chinese Communist Party. The Falun Gong, Hui Muslims, and Christians are also forced into labor camps, detained, harassed, and killed for their beliefs. [5] America has always been a beacon of hope and an inspiration for a pluralistic society. The Trump Administration spearheaded the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which brought leaders from around the globe together to address religious liberty. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a genocide determination on the Uyghurs of Xinxiang, bringing worldwide awareness to the issue. Advancing global religious freedom has always been a bipartisan foreign policy priority. The Biden Administration and Congress must increase efforts via foreign policy to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its violations against religious freedom. Sanctions and bans of products force governments to improve human conditions or risk losing their profit. Will this be enough to stop the Uyghur genocide? Only time will tell.

[1] Turkel, Nury. 2022. No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs. HarperCollins U.K.





Lisa Navarrette has studied at both Roosevelt and Harvard Universities and is pursuing her Doctorate in Law & Policy at Liberty University. She writes for several human rights organizations and hopes her writing will impact securing justice and human rights for all people.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.