Chinese cotton apparel made by over a million Uyghur Muslims being forcibly held in 're-education camps' being sold in the US
The United States and China had been engaged in a months-long trade war before the country’s handling of the Hong Kong protests further damaged its relations with the US, despite President Donald Trump having pledged silence on Washington’s behalf. However, a fresh challenge is now threatening the US’s relations with China.
On October 1, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said that it stopped garments made by China’s Hetian Taida Apparel from entering America over concerns that they were made with prisoners or forced labor.
A report from the Associated Press said the shipments appeared to have been baby pajamas that are bound for Costco which said in turn that the clothing was made in a different factory than the one from the CBP detention order. The AP had also reported last year that the same company was shipping clothes to a big supplier of American college bookstores and sports teams from an internment camp in the same Xinjiang province.
China has reportedly detained over a million Muslims in re-education camps. Most of the people who have been arbitrarily detained are Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group from Xinjiang.
International human rights bodies and foreign governments asked China to stop the crackdown but China says the centers are meant for vocational training and they do not violate the Uyghurs’ human rights. But Beijing never agreed to share information about the centers and has also prevented foreign journalists and investigators from accessing them.
Problems with tracking product origins
It is not easy to trace the origin of a product, however. Much of the forced labor involved in making the apparel is about producing the cotton rather than the end product. As the product goes through a supply chain, its origins get obscured before it is exported to the US or any other country.
Last week, DC-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), came out with a report establishing this very concern.
While forced labor in the internment camps across Xinjiang is well-known, the Chinese Communist Party calls then “education and training” centers where an estimated one million detainees have been held up—mostly Uyghurs and other Muslim members. According to the Chinese government, the arrangement deters those people from extremism and pulls them out of poverty through work.
Xinjiang is the region in China where most of the country’s cotton grows—up to 84 percent. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a US-based group that advocates the group’s rights, calls the region as a "cotton gulag" where prison labor is present all over the cotton-supply chain.
Chinese products 'arguably suspect'
It's extremely tricky for countries that are buying cotton products from China to find the original source of the raw materials. The cotton is turned into yarn and textiles in Xinjiang and other parts of China, or even neighboring countries. American companies buy the yarn, fabrics or even finished clothes made from the natural resource.
And as per CSIS: “Given that Xinjiang provides the vast majority of China’s cotton and industry experts estimate that the majority of that cotton is further transformed into finished and semi-finished products in China, any product from China containing cotton is arguably suspect.”
Since China is the world’s largest cotton producer and also the biggest exporter of garment made from it (roughly one in three garments that the US imports are from China), the possibility of more foreign companies finding themselves using products made from forced labor in Xinjiang only rises, as warned by Verisk Maplecroft, a risk-analysis firm.