Chinese cotton ‘tainted’ by slave labour

Never again: Some describe China’s treatment of the Uighurs as cultural genocide. © Marian

Does the west have the moral right to condemn China? Some think we have a duty to stand up for Uighurs who are being enslaved, but others think the west doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Were the clothes you are wearing right now made by slaves? If they are made from cotton picked in China, then the answer is probably: yes.

The western province of Xinjiang supplies 85% of all Chinese cotton – around 20% of the world supply. There is significant evidence that the cotton is “tainted” by human rights abuses. According to new research published by the BBC, Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic group based largely in the province – are being forced to pick cotton by the state.

Previous investigations have found that as many as 1.8 million Chinese Muslims have been driven from their homes and placed in prison camps, where they are forced to make clothes and other goods.

Since 2018, more than 570,000 Uighurs have been forcibly transported hundreds of kilometres to work on cotton plantations. China insists that the relocations are simply part of a poverty reduction initiative. For years, the Chinese state has run schemes to resettle people from poorer regions to more prosperous ones.

The strategy has been very effective, raising 850 million people out of extreme poverty. The state claims that it is now doing the same for the Uighurs, moving them to places where they can find better-paying jobs.

But others are sceptical. They point out that cotton-pickers earn very low wages for backbreaking work. In recent years, fewer people have been willing to voluntarily take on this work, causing labour shortages.

This has pushed up the price of Chinese cotton, which makes clothes more expensive. Critics say China is not helping Uighurs out of poverty: it is using their forced labour to fill the shortages and keep its cotton cheap.

Uighur cotton pickers are paid for their work. But under the international Forced Labour Convention, this still counts as forced labour, because they are not given any other choice. Uighurs claim that they are being coerced by state officials, who tell them that if they do not pick cotton they will be sent to internment camps instead.

Experts warn that China has ramped up repression of Muslims in recent years. It has opened re-education camps, destroyed centuries-old mosques, tortured Uighurs and forced them to renounce their faith, language and culture.

Some have called this a cultural genocide. They argue for a boycott of Chinese goods until the country respects Uighurs’ rights.

China’s defenders have accused western governments of hypocrisy. They point to Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries and war crimes carried out by western soldiers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that the west is waging its own war against Muslims.

And they argue that, since western governments have inflicted genocides on indigenous people in America, Canada and Australia, they are in no position to lecture China.

Does the west have the moral right to condemn China?

Double standards?

Yes, say some. They argue that evil is evil, wherever and whenever it might be, and we have a moral duty to stand up for the interests of the most vulnerable when they are threatened by a powerful government. We do not have to deny western governments’ crimes in order to criticise China: we must condemn both. History will not look kindly on those who stand aside while another genocide takes place.

Not at all, say others. They point out that western countries have behaved just as badly in their recent history. They claim that few westerners understand the complexities of domestic Chinese politics, and calls for boycotts only make things worse. And they say we have to confront our own role in the treatment of the Uighurs: our money is partly driving the demand for cheap cotton from Xinjiang.

You Decide

  1. Should we refuse to buy clothes made in China until it stops using forced labour to make them?
  2. List the five aspects of your own culture that matter most to you: they might be food, religion, language or anything else. Think about how you would feel if they were banned by the state.


  1. How many Muslims do you think live in China? Take a guess, then look up the figure and compare it with your answer. How close were you? Were you surprised by the answer?
  2. Write a letter to your local newspaper explaining what you think people should do to support the Uighurs.

Some People Say...

“Only crime and the criminal confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that western consumer habits have to change. The thirst for “fast fashion” – cheap clothes that are only worn a few times– requires very cheap labour mostly in China, south Asia and the Philippines. Workers in these industries suffer from low pay, long hours, dangerous conditions and no safety net if they are injured or fall ill. It is this constant demand for cheap materials that China is now using Uighurs’ forced labour to satisfy.
What do we not know?
There is some debate on the question of whether the world is seeing a new wave of religious intolerance. Some point to the genocides against Uighurs, Indian Muslims in Assam, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Christians and Yazidis by Islamist groups in the Middle East, as proof that religious conflict is coming back. But others think these conflicts are really about political power rather than religion. They argue that most countries are increasingly secular and tolerant of other religions.

Word Watch

China frequently builds new homes in richer cities and encourages poor farmers to move into them and find work in the city. It has raised incomes for millions, but some worry that it is destroying local cultures in favour of the culture of the Han ethnic majority.
Extreme poverty
A person is considered to live in extreme poverty if they earn less than $1.90 a day, although critics have argued that this figure is too low.
Forced Labour Convention
A 1930 agreement between most of the countries of the world that defined forced labour. Neither China nor the USA signed it, although they did ratify a watered-down version in 1957.
Internment camps
Prison facilities designed to isolate a certain portion of the population from the rest. Nazi concentration camps are the most infamous kind of internment camp.
Re-education camps
In Chinese re-education camps, Uighurs and other Muslim peoples are banned from practising their faith, language, and other vital aspects of their culture, and forced to assimilate into Han culture.
Cultural genocide
Measures to prevent an ethnic group from practising its culture, by destroying important sites and limiting freedom of expression. Britain carried out cultural genocide in Ireland in the 19th Century, banning Irish language, culture and religion.
Refusing to buy goods manufactured in a rights-abusing country, to put pressure on that country to change. South Africa and Israel have been the targets of high-profile mass boycotts.
Travel ban
In 2017, Donald Trump imposed a ban on all flights coming directly from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. He also banned all Syrian refugees from entering the country.
War crimes
The USA, UK and Australia have all been found to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq since the invasions of those countries in 2001 and 2003.
Indigenous people
Native American peoples were deliberately wiped out by American settlers in the 19th Century. In Canada and Australia, indigenous children were taken from their parents and sent to live with white carers in an effort to stamp out their culture.

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