It has been a week since Chinese consumers expressed their outrage, mostly online, against apparel brands like H&M and Nike, members of Swiss NGO Better Cotton Initiatives (BCI) after it said workers were forced to work in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region's cotton production facilities. The initiative asked its members to boycott cotton products from the region.
Having visited cotton fields in southern Xinjiang's Kashgar Prefecture, a key cotton production area accounting for 20 percent of total cotton production in Xinjiang and about 16 percent of the total output in China, I have spoken to cotton farmers, yarn factory managers, ordinary citizens and government officials on the issue of forced labor during the process of cotton farming and production. Here are my key findings:
The accusation of forced labor is a false, made-up lie. It is tough to believe any economy with scale will use forced labor to maintain its competitiveness. Cotton production in Xinjiang is a scaled economy from a global perspective, so any outdated production methodologies will be made obsolete.
This is what the cotton farmers, the yarn manufacturer and other ordinary citizens that I have spoken to said: "No, no one is forcing us on anything. We Uygurs are living happily and freely as we can."
"Is there any forced labor (in your cotton field)?" I asked. "No, no!" They answered.
"So your parents grew cotton in the same region. Compared with what they have, nowadays, is it more mechanized picking cotton?" I kept asking. "Yes, it is," they said.
A Uygur cotton farmer explains his income sources of his family to me: "My son works in the county. My wife and my daughter-in-law help me take care of the cotton field, and other vegetables and fruit trees growing on our family farm. In addition to farming, we have 25 sheep. By this diversified economy, our family can gain above 80,000 yuan ($12,220) annually."
When I interviewed a manager who has been running a yarn factory for 12 years, I asked: "12 years ago, did the factory already have this modern look or did you gradually upgrade the equipment?" He said: "It was a one-time investment 12 years ago."
The Uygur people are living happily here. They are employed, with a steady income, and if they intend to do some small business independently, the government even has incentive plans and will grant subsidies accordingly. In the two counties in Kashgar that I have visited, Bachu has almost 100 percent of the Uygur population while Tumxuk has about 68 percent.
BCI's current boycott on Xinjiang cotton prevented nearly 500,000 tons from entering the global textile supply chain, which makes up about 10 percent of Xinjiang's annual output and 6 percent of China's domestic cotton consumption. This impact so far can be absorbed by the Chinese domestic market and has not really caused damage significant enough to devastate the cotton market in China.
However, together with the U.S. import ban, one potential impact will be global apparel brands moving their textile supply chain out of China and close to other cotton sourcing areas such as India or Southeast Asia, which also has ample labor to support the textile industry. The other worse result is that it might cause inevitable unemployment of the Uygur people in Xinjiang who are working in this value chain and negatively impact their lives. This, frankly speaking, is against human rights ironically as what the Western society advocates.
BCI has not lifted its ban even after its Shanghai office issued a public statement saying that there was no forced labor found in Xinjiang. I urge BCI to stand up and apologize to cotton farmers in Xinjiang. They have devoted their efforts to cultivate quality products for global consumers. We should respect and honor them instead of lying and smearing for an underlying agenda.