Ibrahim’s parents fled political turmoil in China for Afghanistan more than 50 years ago. At that time, Mao Zedong had unleashed the Cultural Revolution, and life was upended for many Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang that included Ibrahim’s parents.
Ibrahim was born in Afghanistan. But now he, too, is trying to escape the clutches of Chinese authoritarianism.
He and his family have been afraid to leave their home in Afghanistan since the Taliban, the country’s new rulers, took control last month, venturing outside only to buy essentials. “We are extremely worried and nervous,” said Ibrahim, whose full name is being withheld for his safety. “Our children are worried for our safety, so they have asked us to stay home.”
For years, Chinese officials have issued calls for leaders in Afghanistan to crack down on and deport Uyghur militants they claimed were sheltering in Afghanistan. The officials said the fighters belonged to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist organization that Beijing has held responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in China since the late 1990s.
locked up close to a million Uyghurs in camps and subjected those outside to constant surveillance. China says the camps are necessary to weed out extremism and to “re-educate” the Uyghurs.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, standing side by side with leaders of the Taliban in July. Earlier this month, Mr. Wang pledged $30 million in food and other aid to the new government, as well as three million coronavirus vaccine doses; on Thursday, he said Afghanistan’s overseas assets “should not be unreasonably frozen or used as a bargaining chip to exert pressure,” obliquely referencing American control of billions of dollars belonging to the Afghan central bank.
Since the late 1990s, Beijing has succeeded in pressuring several countries to deport Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, has counted 395 cases of Uyghurs being sent to China since 1997. The group said in an August report that journalists and human rights organizations have documented 40 cases of detentions or renditions from Afghanistan to China, though it has verified only one of them.
cash shortages. People have been unable to withdraw money from banks. Grocery prices have shot up. The Taliban have also looked to China for help avoiding a possible economic collapse.
their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.
“The lines are blurred on China’s part between who constitutes a terrorist and who constitutes someone who has simply been politically active,” Mr. Small said. “Individuals who are politically and economically connected with any activities they find problematic” are likely to be targeted, he said.
The uncertain future of Uyghurs in Afghanistan has caught the attention of Abdul Aziz Naseri, a Uyghur activist who was born in Afghanistan and now lives in Turkey. Mr. Abdul Aziz said he had compiled a list of roughly 500 Afghan Uyghurs who want to leave the country.
“They say to me: ‘Please save our future, please save our children,’” he said.
He shared the names and photographs of these people with The New York Times, but asked that their information be kept private. At least 73 people on the list appeared to be under the age of 5.
Shabnam, a 32-year-old Uyghur, her mother and two sisters managed to get out of Afghanistan last month. The women rushed to the airport in Kabul during the frenzied United States evacuation. Her sisters boarded one flight, her mother another. Shabnam said she was the last to leave.
In an interview, she described being separated from her husband while getting through the chaotic security lines at the airport. She was holding his passport and begged the security guards to deliver it to him. No one helped, she said.
Shabnam waited for her husband for four days, while the people around her at the airport encouraged her to leave.
She finally did — boarding a U.S. military plane with hundreds of other Afghans late last month. Her trip took her to Qatar, Germany and finally the United States, where she landed on Aug. 26. She is now in New Jersey and still trying to get her husband out of Afghanistan.
“I was happy that I got out of there, thank God,” Shabnam said. “I like it here. It’s safe and secure.”
She was a gifted agricultural scientist educated at prestigious universities in Shanghai and Tokyo. She said she wanted to help farmers in poor areas, like her hometown in Xinjiang, in western China. But because of her uncle’s activism for China’s oppressed Muslim Uyghurs, her family and friends said, the Chinese state made her a security target.
At first they took away her father. Then they pressed her to return home from Japan. Last year, at age 30, Mihriay Erkin, the scientist, died in Xinjiang, under mysterious circumstances.
The government confirmed Ms. Erkin’s death but attributed it to an illness. Her uncle, Abduweli Ayup, the activist, believes she died in state custody.
Mr. Ayup says his niece was only the latest in his family to come under pressure from the authorities. His two siblings had already been detained and imprisoned. All three were targeted in retaliation for his efforts to expose the plight of the Uyghurs, he said.
called a genocide, prompting foreign governments to impose sanctions.
Now the Chinese authorities are pushing back against overseas Uyghurs by targeting their relatives.
The Communist Party has long treated the relatives of dissidents as guilty by association and used them to pressure and punish outspoken family members. With the courts under the control of the authorities, there is little recourse to challenge such prosecutions. Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, spent nearly eight years under house arrest after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Her younger brother, Liu Hui, served two years in prison for a fraud conviction she called retaliation.
But with the Uyghurs, the authorities seem to be applying this tactic with unusual, and increasing severity, placing some Uyghur activists’ relatives in prison for decades, or longer.
Dolkun Isa, the German-based president of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur rights group, said he believes his older brother is in detention. He learned in late May that his younger brother, Hushtar, had been sentenced to life in prison. “It was connected to my activism, surely,” Mr. Isa said.
Radio Free Asia, a United States-funded broadcaster, says that more than 50 relatives of journalists on staff have been detained in Xinjiang, with some held in detention camps and others sentenced to prison. The journalists all work for the broadcaster’s Uyghur language service, which has in the past several years stood out for its reporting on the crackdown, exposing the existence of camps and publishing the first accounts of deaths and forced sterilizations.
The sister of Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur American activist, was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for terrorism. The sister, Gulshan Abbas, and her aunt had been detained in 2018, days after Rushan Abbas spoke at an event in Washington denouncing the crackdown and widespread detention in Xinjiang.
use of the Uyghur language. The government regarded even the most moderate expression of ethnic identity as a threat and Mr. Ayup was arrested in 2013 and spent 15 months in prison. After he was released, he fled abroad, but his experience emboldened him to continue campaigning.
a leaked government document outlining how Uyghurs were tracked and chosen for detention.
The circumstances of Ms. Erkin’s death remain unclear.
Radio Free Asia, which cited a national security officer from Ms. Erkin’s hometown as saying she had died while in a detention center in the southern city of Kashgar. Mr. Ayup said he believed it was the same place where he himself had been beaten and sexually abused six years earlier.
Ms. Erkin’s family was given her body, Mr. Ayup said, but were told by security officials to not have guests at her funeral and to tell others she died at home.
In a statement to The New York Times, the Xinjiang government said that Ms. Erkin had returned from overseas in June 2019 to receive medical treatment. On Dec. 19, she died at a hospital in Kashgar of organ failure caused by severe anemia, according to the statement.
From the time she went to the hospital until her death, she had always been looked after by her uncle and younger brother, the government wrote.
Before she returned to China, Ms. Erkin seemed to be aware that her return could end tragically.
“We all leave alone, the only things that can accompany us are the Love of Allah and our smile,” she wrote in text messages to Mr. Ayup when he tried to dissuade her from going home.
“I am very scared,” she admitted. “I hope I would be killed with a single bullet.”
When the government ordered women in her mostly Muslim community to be fitted with contraceptive devices, Qelbinur Sedik pleaded for an exemption. She was nearly 50 years old, she told officials in Xinjiang. She had obeyed the government’s birth limits and had only one child.
It was no use. The workers threatened to take her to the police if she continued resisting, she said. She gave in and went to a government clinic where a doctor, using metal forceps, inserted an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy. She wept through the procedure.
“I felt like I was no longer a normal woman,” Ms. Sedik said, choking up as she described the 2017 ordeal. “Like I was missing something.”
Across much of China, the authorities are encouraging women to have more children, as they try to stave off a demographic crisis from a declining birthrate. But in the far western region of Xinjiang, they are forcing them to have fewer, as they tighten their grip on Muslim ethnic minorities.
internment camps and prisons. The authorities have placed the region under tight surveillance, sent residents to work in factories and placed children in boarding schools.
By targeting Muslim women, the authorities are going even further, attempting to orchestrate a demographic shift that will affect the population for generations. Birthrates in the region have already plunged in recent years, as the use of invasive birth control procedures has risen, findings that were previously documented by a researcher, Adrian Zenz, with The Associated Press.
crimes against humanity and genocide, in large part because of the efforts to stem the population growth of Muslim minorities. The Trump administration in January was the first government to declare the crackdown a genocide, with reproductive oppression as a leading reason; the Biden administration affirmed the label in March.
Ms. Sedik’s experience, reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, helped form the basis for the decision by the United States government. “It was one of the most detailed and compelling first-person accounts we had,” Kelley E. Currie, a former United States ambassador who was involved in the government’s discussions. “It helped to put a face on the horrifying statistics we were seeing.”
Beijing has accused its critics of pushing an anti-China agenda.
in March. “No one nor any agency shall interfere.”
To women in Xinjiang, the orders from the government were clear: They didn’t have a choice.
Last year, a community worker in Urumqi, the regional capital, where Ms. Sedik had lived, sent messages saying women between 18 and 59 had to submit to pregnancy and birth control inspections.
“If you fight with us at the door and if you refuse to cooperate with us, you will be taken to the police station,” the worker wrote, according to screenshots of the WeChat messages that Ms. Sedik shared with The Times.
encourage births, including by providing tax subsidies and free IUD removals. But from 2015 to 2018, Xinjiang’s share of the country’s total new IUD insertions increased, even as use of the devices fell nationwide.
The contraception campaign appeared to work.
report by a Xinjiang government research center read. “They have avoided the pain of being trapped by extremism and being turned into reproductive tools.”
Women like Ms. Sedik, who had obeyed the rules, were not spared. After the IUD procedure, Ms. Sedik suffered from heavy bleeding and headaches. She later had the device secretly removed, then reinserted. In 2019, she decided to be sterilized.
“The government had become so strict, and I could no longer take the IUD,’” said Ms. Sedik, who now lives in the Netherlands after fleeing China in 2019. “I lost all hope in myself.”
‘The women of Xinjiang are in danger’
leaked last year from Karakax County, in southwestern Xinjiang, which revealed that one of the most common reasons cited for detention was violating birth planning policies.
government notice from a county in Ili, unearthed by Mr. Zenz, the researcher.
operated under secrecy — many were subjected tointerrogations. For some, the ordeal was worse.
Tursunay Ziyawudun was detained in a camp in Ili Prefecture for 10 months for traveling to Kazakhstan. She said that on three occasions, she was taken to a dark cell where two to three masked men raped her and used electric batons to forcibly penetrate her.
“You become their toy,” Ms. Ziyawudun said in a telephone interview fromthe United States,where she now lives, as she broke down sobbing. “You just want to die at the time, but unfortunately you don’t.”
Gulbahar Jalilova, the third former detainee, said in an interview that she had been beaten in a camp and that a guard exposed himself during an interrogation and wanted her to perform oral sex.
The three former detainees, along with two others who spoke to The Times, also described being regularly forced to take unidentified pills or receive injections of medication that caused nausea and fatigue. Eventually, a few of them said, they stopped menstruating.
The former detainees’ accounts could not be independently verified because tight restrictions in Xinjiang make unfettered access to the camps impossible. The Chinese government has forcefully denied all allegations of abuse in the facilities.
Beijing has sought to undermine the credibility of the women who have spoken out, accusing them of lying and of poor morals, all while claiming to be a champion of women’s rights.
‘We are all Chinese’
Even in their homes, the women did not feel safe. Uninvited Chinese Communist Party cadres would show up and had to be let in.
The party sends out more than a million workers to regularly visit, and sometimes stay in, the homes of Muslims, as part of a campaign called “Pair Up and Become Family.” To many Uyghurs, the cadres were little different from spies.
The cadres were tasked with reporting on whether the families they visited showed signs of “extremist behavior.” For women, this included any resentment they might have felt about state-mandated contraceptive procedures.
When the party cadres came to stay in 2018, Zumret Dawut had just been forcibly sterilized.
Four Han cadres visited her in Urumqi, bringing yogurt and eggs to help with the recovery, she recalled. They were also armed with questions: Did she have any issues with the sterilization operation? Was she dissatisfied with the government’s policy?
“I was so scared that if I said the wrong thing they would send me back to the camps,” said Ms. Dawut, a mother of three. “So I just told them, ‘We are all Chinese people and we have to do what the Chinese law says.’”
But the officials’ unwelcome gaze settled also on Ms. Dawut’s 11-year-old daughter, she said. One cadre, a 19-year-old man who was assigned to watch the child, would sometimes call Ms. Dawut and suggest taking her daughter to his home. She was able to rebuff him with excuses that the child was sick, she said.
Other women reported having to fend off advances even in the company of their husbands.
Ms. Sedik, the Uzbek teacher, was still recovering from a sterilization procedure when her “relative” — her husband’s boss — showed up.
She was expected to cook, clean and entertain him even though she was in pain from the operation. Worse, he would ask to hold her hand or to kiss and hug her, she said.
Mostly, Ms. Sedik agreed to his requests, terrified that if she refused, he would tell the government that she was an extremist. She rejected him only once: when he asked to sleep with her.
It went on like this every month or so for two years — until she left the country.
“He would say, ‘Don’t you like me? Don’t you love me?’” she recalled. “‘If you refuse me, you are refusing the government.’”
“I felt so humiliated, oppressed and angry,” she said. “But there was nothing I could do.”
Amy Chang Chien and Fatima Er contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — President Biden has repeatedly pledged to work with China on issues like climate change while challenging Beijing on human rights and unfair trade practices.
But those goals are now coming into conflict in the global solar sector, presenting the Biden administration with a tough choice as it looks to expand the use of solar power domestically to reduce the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions.
The dilemma stems from an uncomfortable reality: China dominates the global supply chain for solar power, producing the vast majority of the materials and parts for solar panels that the United States relies on for clean energy. And there is emerging evidence that some of China’s biggest solar companies have worked with the Chinese government to absorb minority workers in the far western region of Xinjiang, programs often seen as a red flag for potential forced labor and human rights abuses.
This week, Mr. Biden is inviting world leaders to a climate summit in Washington, where he is expected to unveil an ambitious plan for cutting America’s emissions over the next decade. The administration is already eyeing a goal of generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from carbon-free sources such as solar, wind or nuclear power by 2035, up from only 40 percent last year. To meet that target, the United States may need to more than double its annual pace of solar installations.
many of which are imported from Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.
China also supplies many of the key components in solar panels, including more than 80 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a raw material that most solar panels use to absorb energy from sunlight. Nearly half of the global supply comes from Xinjiang alone. In 2019, less than 5 percent of the world’s polysilicon came from U.S.-owned companies.
“It’s put the Democrats in a hard position,” said Francine Sullivan, the vice president for business development at REC Silicon, a polysilicon maker based in Norway with factories in the United States. “Do you want to stand up to human rights in China, or do you want cheap solar panels?”
The administration is increasingly under pressure from influential supporters not to turn a blind eye to potential human rights abuses in order to achieve its climate goals.
“As the U.S. seeks to address climate change, we must not allow the Chinese Communist Party to use forced labor to meet our nation’s needs,” Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., wrote in a letter on March 12 urging the Biden administration to block imports of solar products containing polysilicon from the Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang is now notorious as the site of a vast program of detention and surveillance that the Chinese government has carried out against Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups. Human rights groups say the Chinese authorities may have detained a million or more minorities in camps and other sites where they face torture, indoctrination and coerced labor.
In a report last year, Horizon Advisory, a consultancy in Washington, cited Chinese news reports and government announcements suggesting that major Chinese solar companies including GCL-Poly, East Hope Group, Daqo New Energy, Xinte Energy and Jinko Solar had accepted workers transferred with the help of the Chinese government from impoverished parts of Xinjiang.
Jinko Solar denied those allegations, as did the Chinese government. Zhang Longgen, a vice chairman of Xinjiang Daqo — a unit of one of the companies cited by Horizon Advisory — said that the polysilicon plants were not labor intensive, and that the company’s workers were freely employed and could quit if they wanted, according to Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper. The report said that only 18 of the 1,934 workers at Xinjiang Daqo belonged to ethnic minorities, and that none were Uyghur.
a sweeping ban on cotton and tomatoes from the region. Those restrictions have forced a reorganization of global supply chains, especially in the apparel sector.
The Biden administration has said it is still reviewing the Trump administration’s policies, and it has not yet signaled whether it will pursue other bans on products or companies. But both Mr. Biden and his advisers have insisted that the United States plans to confront China on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said that the draconian treatment of Uyghurs “cannot be ignored,” and that the administration was “studying ways to effectively ensure that we are not importing products made from forced labor,” including solar products.
a pledge of 236 companies to oppose forced labor and encouraged companies to sever any ties with Xinjiang by June.
Some Chinese companies have responded by reshuffling their supply chains, funneling polysilicon and other solar products they manufacture outside Xinjiang to American buyers, and then directing their Xinjiang-made products to China and other markets.
Analysts say this kind of reorganization is, in theory, feasible. About 35 percent of the world’s polysilicon comes from regions in China other than Xinjiang, while the United States and the European Union together make up around 30 percent of global solar panel demand, according to Johannes Bernreuter, a polysilicon market analyst at Bernreuter Research.
John Smirnow, the general counsel for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said most solar companies were already well on their way toward extricating supply chains from Xinjiang.
also been reported in Chinese facilities outside Xinjiang where Uyghurs and other minorities have been transferred to work. And restrictions on products from Xinjiang could spread to markets including Canada, Britain and Australia, which are debating new rules and guidelines.
Human rights advocates have argued that allowing Chinese companies to cleave their supply chains to serve American and non-American buyers may do little to improve conditions in Xinjiang and have pressed the Biden administration for stronger action.
“The message has to be clear to the Chinese government that this economic model is not going to be supported by governments or businesses,” said Cathy Feingold, the director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s International Department.
Chinese companies are also facing pressure from Beijing not to accede to American demands, since that could be seen as a tacit criticism of the government’s activities in Xinjiang.
In a statement in January, the China Photovoltaic Industry Association and China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association condemned “irresponsible statements” from U.S. industries, which they said were directed at curbing Xinjiang’s development and “meddling in Chinese domestic affairs.”
“It is widely known that the ‘forced labor’ issue is in its entirety the lie of the century that the United States and certain other Western countries have concocted from nothing,” they said.
mothballed a new $1.2 billion facility in Tennessee in 2014, while REC Silicon shut its polysilicon facility in Washington in 2019.
China has promised to carry out large purchases of American polysilicon as part of a trade deal signed last year, but those transactions have not materialized.
In the near term, tensions over Xinjiang could be a boon for the few remaining U.S. suppliers. Ms. Sullivan said some small U.S. solar developers had reached out to REC Silicon in recent months to inquire about non-Chinese products.
But American companies need the promise of reliable, long-term orders to scale up, she said, adding that when she explains the limited supply of solar products that do not touch China, people become “visibly ill.”
“This is the big lesson,” Ms. Sullivan added. “You become dependent on China, and what does it mean? We have to swallow our values in order to do solar.”
In one scene, Uyghur women are seen dancing in a rousing Bollywood style face-off with a group of Uyghur men. In another, a Kazakh man serenades a group of friends with a traditional two-stringed lute while sitting in a yurt.
Welcome to “The Wings of Songs,” a state-backed musical that is the latest addition to China’s propaganda campaign to defend its policies in Xinjiang. The campaign has intensified in recent weeks as Western politicians and rights groups have accused Beijing of subjecting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to forced labor and genocide.
The film, which debuted in Chinese cinemas last week, offers a glimpse of the alternate vision of Xinjiang that China’s ruling Communist Party is pushing to audiences at home and abroad. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, the Uyghurs and other minorities are singing and dancing happily in colorful dress, a flashy take on a tired Chinese stereotype about the region’s minorities that Uyghur rights activists quickly denounced.
“The notion that Uyghurs can sing and dance so therefore there is no genocide — that’s just not going to work,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Genocide can take place in any beautiful place.”
Western sanctions, the Chinese government has responded with a fresh wave of Xinjiang propaganda across a wide spectrum.The approach ranges from portraying a sanitized, feel-good version of life in Xinjiang — as in the example of the musical — to deploying Chinese officials on social media sites to attack Beijing’s critics. To reinforce its message, the party is emphasizing that its efforts have rooted out the perceived threat of violent terrorism.
In the government’s telling, Xinjiang is now a peaceful place where Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group, live in harmony alongside the region’s Muslim ethnic minorities, just like the “seeds of a pomegranate.” It’s a place where the government has successfully emancipated women from the shackles of extremist thinking. And the region’s ethnic minorities are portrayed as grateful for the government’s efforts.
reality on the ground, in which the authorities maintain tight control using a dense network of surveillance cameras and police posts, and have detained many Uyghurs and other Muslims in mass internment camps and prisons. As of Monday, the film had brought in a dismal $109,000 at the box office, according to Maoyan, a company that tracks ticket sales.
initially denied the existence of the region’s internment camps. Then they described the facilities as “boarding schools” in which attendance was completely voluntary.
Now, the government is increasingly adopting a more combative approach, seeking to justify its policies as necessary to combat terrorism and separatism in the region.
Chinese officials and state media have pushed the government’s narrative about its policies in Xinjiang in part by spreading alternative narratives — including disinformation — on American social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This approach reached an all-time high last year, according to a report published last week by researchers at the International Cyber Policy Center of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI.
The social media campaign is centered on Chinese diplomats on Twitter, state-owned media accounts, pro-Communist Party influencers and bots, the institute’s researchers found. The accounts send messages often aimed at spreading disinformation about Uyghurs who have spoken out, and to smear researchers, journalists, and organizations working on Xinjiang issues.
Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who was not involved in the ASPI report, called China’s Xinjiang offensive the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic that she had seen in her 25 years of researching the Chinese propaganda system.
“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive,” she said in emailed comments. “And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.”
In a statement, Twitter said it had suspended a number of the accounts cited by the ASPI researchers. Facebook said in a statement that it had recently removed a malicious hacker group that had been targeting the Uyghur diaspora. Both companies began labeling the accounts of state-affiliated media outlets last year.
The party has also asserted that it needed to take firm action after a spate of deadly attacks rocked the region some years ago.Critics say that the extent of the violence remains unclear, but also that such unrest did not justify the sweeping, indiscriminate scope of the detentions.
Last week, the government played up a claim that it had uncovered a plot by Uyghur intellectuals to sow ethnic hatred. CGTN, an international arm of China’s state broadcaster, released a documentary on Friday that accused the scholars of writing textbooks that were full of “blood, violence, terrorism and separatism.”
The books had been approved for use in elementary and middle schools in Xinjiang for more than a decade. Then in 2016, shortly before the crackdown started, they were suddenly deemed subversive.
The documentary accuses the intellectuals of having distorted historical facts, citing, for example, the inclusion of a historical photo of Ehmetjan Qasim, a leader of a short-lived independent state in Xinjiang in the late 1940s.
“It’s just absurd,” said Kamalturk Yalqun, whose father, Yalqun Rozi, a prominent Uyghur scholar, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for attempted subversion for his involvement with the textbooks. He said that a photo of Mr. Rozi shown in the film was the first time he had seen his father in five years.
“China is just trying to come up with any way they can think of to dehumanize Uyghurs and make these textbooks look like dangerous materials,” he said by phone from Boston. “My father was not an extremist but just a scholar trying to do his job well.”
TOKYO — Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother in China’s western Xinjiang region. His brother said he had someone he wanted Mr. Rozi to meet: a Chinese security officer.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, had been invited to Japan, and the officer had some questions. Were Mr. Rozi and his fellow Uyghur activists planning protests? Who were the group’s leaders? What work were they doing? If Mr. Rozi cooperated, his family in China would be well cared for, the officer assured him on a second video call.
The officer’s intent was clear — to discourage Mr. Rozi from doing anything that might hurt China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Mr. Rozi had invited Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, to surreptitiously record the second call, which was later broadcast to millions of viewers.
The footage provided a rare look at Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and intimidate Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, and it has contributed to a growing awareness in Japan of China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
put in re-education camps in recent years in what critics say is an effort to erase their ethnic identity. Japan is the only member of the Group of 7 industrial powers that did not participate in coordinated sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last month over the situation in Xinjiang, which the U.S. government has declared a genocide.
signed a joint statement criticizing China over its “coercion and destabilizing behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region and its violations of the “international order.”
H&M learned last monthwhen it became the target of a nationalist boycott in China for expressing concern about accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.
By contrast,the Japanese retail company Muji, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently declared that it would continue to use cotton from Xinjiang despite the accusations.
Still, despite the economic and geopolitical risks, a growing group of lawmakers are calling for Japan to defend Uyghur rights. Members of Parliament are working on legislation that would give the government powers to impose sanctions over human rights abuses. And a broad cross section of Japanese politicians were pushing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel Mr. Xi’s state visit to Japan before it was delayed for a second time by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Uyghur community in Japan, though estimated to be fewer than 3,000 people, has become more visible in the past year as it presses the government to act. Mr. Rozi’s story has played no small part. Since the broadcast last year of his call with the Chinese security officer, Mr. Rozi — a fluent Japanese speaker — has appeared in the news media and before a parliamentary group to discuss the abuses in Xinjiang.
The stories of other Uyghurs have also found a wider Japanese audience in recent months, including in a best-selling graphic novel featuring testimony from women who had been imprisoned in the Xinjiang camps.
As awareness has increased in Japan, concerns about Chinese human rights abuses have grown across the political spectrum.
For years, complaints about China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities were considered the purview of Japan’s hawkish right wing. Centrists and those on the left often saw them as pretexts for replacing Japan’s postwar pacifism with the pursuit of regional hegemony.
But China’s behavior in Xinjiang has forced a reassessment among many liberals. Even Japan’s Communist Party is calling it “a serious violation of human rights.”
“China says this is an internal problem, but we have to deal with it as an international problem,” Akira Kasai, a member of Parliament and one of the party’s top strategists, said in a recent interview.
Last summer, nearly 40 members of the Japanese legislature formed a committee for rethinking Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing. In February, a longstanding conservative parliamentary committee dedicated to promoting Uyghur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers in the country’s center-left opposition parties.
The groups, said Shiori Yamao, an opposition lawmaker, are pushing the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. government, as well as parliaments in Canada and the Netherlands, by declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide.
Members of Parliament say they are also working on a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, the American law used to impose sanctions on government officials around the world involved in directing human rights abuses.
It is unclear how much traction the efforts will get. Mr. Rozi does not believe that lawmakers will go so far as to accuse China of genocide, but he is hopeful that Japan will impose sanctions.
Mr. Rozi came to Japan in 2005 for a graduate program in engineering, eventually starting a construction company and opening a kebab shop in Chiba Prefecture, on Tokyo’s outskirts. He was not political, he said, and steered clear of any activities that might be viewed unfavorably by the Chinese government.
Everything changed in 2018, after he learned that several members of his wife’s family had been detained. Communication with his own family had also become nearly impossible amid the security clampdown.
The experience convinced Mr. Rozi that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests calling for China to close the camps. Before long, he had become a prominent voice in Japan’s Uyghur community, making media appearances, meeting with politicians and running seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received the surprise phone call from his brother, he knew that his activism had caught the attention of Chinese officials.
Since Mr. Rozi’s appearance on the Japanese public broadcaster, the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him, he said. Phone calls to his family have gone unanswered.
He is afraid for his relatives. But speaking out has been worth it, he said: “Now pretty much everyone here knows about the Uyghurs’ problems.”
Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands went out across Chinese social media as human rights campaigns collided with cotton sourcing and political gamesmanship. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it may affect everything from your T-shirts to your trench coats.
What’s all this I’m hearing about fashion brands and China? Did someone make another dumb racist ad?
No, it’s much more complicated than an offensive and obvious cultural faux pas. The issue centers on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry — allegations denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands issued statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut ties with the region all together.
Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, charging the allegations are an offense to the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and a slew of celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.
growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.
This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality.
Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.
Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that happens to produce about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, especially the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Though it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government has been increasingly involved in the area, saying it must exert its authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have been moving into the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced-labor camps.
OK, and what about the Uyghurs?
A predominantly Muslim Turkic group, the Uyghur population within Xinjiang numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obedient to the Chinese Communist Party via coercive labor programs.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that connected Uyghurs in forced detention to the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of those brands reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.
banned all imports of cotton from the region, as well as products made from the material and declared what was happening “genocide.” At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that material from Xinjiang was involved in more than 1.5 billion garments imported annually by American brands and retailers.
That’s a lot! How do I know if I am wearing a garment made from Xinjiang cotton?
You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that often it’s hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made.
So if this has been an issue for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?
It isn’t immediately clear. One theory is that it is because of the ramp-up in political brinkmanship between China and the West. On March 22, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Not long after, screenshots from a statement posted in September 2020 by H&M citing “deep concerns” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region, began circulating on Chinese social media. The fallout was fast and furious. There were calls for a boycott, and H&M products were soon missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s Tmall and JD.com. The furor was stoked by comments on the microblogging site Sina Weibo from groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.
Within hours, other big Western brands like Nike and Burberry began trending for the same reason.
And it’s not just consumers who are up in arms: Influencers and celebrities have also been severing ties with the brands. Even video games are bouncing virtual “looks” created by Burberry from their platforms.
one second (there were 100 made). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.
But Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly affirming their national values, often performatively choosing their country over contracts.
In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and a Versace ambassador, publicly repudiated the brand when it made the mistake of creating a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries, seeming to dismiss the “One China” policy and the central government’s sovereignty. Not long afterward, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake, creating a tee that named Hong Kong and Taiwan separately; Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel, immediately distanced herself from the brand.
Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” — outfits worn by video game characters that the brand had introduced with great fanfare — from its popular title Honor of Kings as a response to news that the brand had stopped buying cotton produced in the Xinjiang region. The looks had been available for less than a week.
So this is hitting both fast fashion and the high end. How much of the fashion world is involved?
Potentially, most of it. So far Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have all been swept up in the crisis. Even before the ban, additional companies like Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and the Gap had announced that they did not source material from Xinjiang and had officially taken a stance against human rights abuses.
removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.
That seems squirrelly. Is this likely to escalate?
Brands seem to be concerned that the answer is yes, since, apparently fearful of offending the Chinese government, some companies have proactively announced that they will continue buying cotton from Xinjiang. Hugo Boss, the German company whose suiting is a de facto uniform for the financial world, posted a statement on Weibo saying, “We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton” (even though last fall the company had announced it was no longer sourcing from the region). Muji, the Japanese brand, is also proudly touting its use of Xinjiang cotton on its Chinese websites, as is Uniqlo.
Wait … I get playing possum, but why would a company publicly pledge its allegiance to Xinjiang cotton?
It’s about the Benjamins, buddy. According to a report from Bain & Company released last December, China is expected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025. Last year it was the only part of the world to report year on year growth, with the luxury market reaching 44 billion euros ($52.2 billion).
Is anyone going to come out of this well?
One set of winners could be the Chinese fashion industry, which has long played second fiddle to Western brands, to the frustration of many businesses there. Shares in Chinese apparel groups and textile companies with ties to Xinjiang rallied this week as the backlash gained pace. And more than 20 Chinese brands publicly made statements touting their support for Chinese cotton.
H&M faces a boycott. Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike, Converse and Calvin Klein have lost their brand ambassadors. Burberry has had to give up an online video game partnership.
Western brands are suddenly feeling the wrath of the Chinese consumer, the very shoppers who for years have clamored for their products and paid them vast amounts of money. Egged on by the ruling Communist Party, Chinese online activists are punishing foreign companies that have joined a call to avoid using cotton produced in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the authorities are waging a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities.
The sudden bout of rage lays bare the vulnerability of foreign companies as tensions worsen between China and the United States and other countries. Lawmakers in the United States in particular who have been increasingly critical of China have pressured international companies to take a public stance on China’s human rights practices, including in Xinjiang. That makes the companies convenient targets for Chinese officials who are aggressively pushing back against American officials.
“A lot of Western countries and China are pretty black-and-white on this issue. There’s not a lot of gray,” said Trey McArver, a co-founder of Trivium China, a consultancy that helps foreign businesses sell in China, referring to the opposing stances over Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. “You can’t agree with both of them, so I don’t think it’s an easy answer.”
imposed fresh sanctions on top Chinese officials this week. These sought to punish Beijing for abuses against the Uyghurs and other minorities, which have been well documented by foreign media and rights groups. There is also growing evidence that cotton from Xinjiang is linked to coercive labor programs and mass internment of as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities, the U.S. government and rights groups say.
It isn’t clear what the long-term impact might be on Western companies that depend on China to make or buy their products. On Thursday, there was still a steady stream of shoppers at several popular H&M and Nike outlets in Shanghai and Beijing. Previous state media-driven pressure campaigns against companies like Apple, Starbucks and Volkswagen failed to dent Chinese demand for their products.
Still, their position could become increasingly precarious as Beijing looks for ways to counter the narrative. And it is no stranger to flexing its economic muscle for political ends.
Years earlier, after South Korea embraced an American antimissile defense system, the Chinese government fed anti-South Korean sentiment in the country that forced Lotte Mart, a popular South Korean supermarket, to shut many of its outlets. The missile system stayed, but Beijing was still able to exact pain.
Such tactics have become a common feature of China’s increasingly aggressive brand of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats now routinely deploy a mix of threats and nationalistic messages to browbeat Beijing’s critics and assert the country’s interests.
phrase traced to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, who, in demanding loyalty to the party, said in 2014: “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.”
raised concerns about labor in Xinjiang. She said she was now skeptical of the brand. “I probably would not buy it from now on,” she said.
Chinese state media outlets have overtly stoked the outrage with hashtags on social media and bold headlines. Government officials have sought to depict the outcry as authentic, with a Commerce Ministry spokesman saying on Thursday that Chinese consumers were “hoping that the relevant companies would correct their wrong practices.”
For decades, foreign companies operating in China have been largely wary of appearing critical of the Chinese government. And in recent years, several of them have been besieged by a growing army of nationalistic online users, who have been ready to pounce on the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. All have been quick to apologize, and emerged largely unscathed.
an alliance to curb China’s influence, Beijing, emboldened by its success in curbing the coronavirus outbreak at home, is pushing back hard against what it perceives as hypocrisy.
“It might get more heated,” said Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, in an email. More European companies are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place, he said. “Everybody has to service their domestic crowd.”
But for many of these companies, the issue is more complicated than a matter of managing public relations.
To obtain cotton, the companies almost certainly need to get it from Xinjiang, which produces 87 percent of the material in China. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang.
But in January, the Trump administration announced a ban on imports of cotton from Xinjiang, as well as all products made with those materials, putting pressure on brands to check their supply chains. Rights groups such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project have also been pushing American lawmakers to enact sweeping legislation that would block imports from Xinjiang, unless companies can prove that their supply chains are free of forced labor.
Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, on Thursday denounced the accusations of forced labor, saying Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang provided employment opportunities to lift people out of poverty.
“The accusation of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is entirely a lie concocted by certain anti-China forces,” she said. “The purpose is to discredit China’s image, undermine Xinjiang’s security and stability and impede China’s development.”
Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization, and state media highlighted a statement that the company made eight months ago setting out its concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang. That prompted Chinese internet users to call for a boycott.
The company responded on Wednesday by saying its statement last year on Xinjiang did not “represent any political position.” That made internet users, who were baying for an apology, only more furious.
On Thursday, a mall in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, shut an H&M outlet, urging the company to apologize formally to people in the region. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, workers dismantled the company’s sign from a store.
“I don’t expect this to die down,” said Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the United Nations working group on business and human rights. “This is a different trajectory and a different era.”
Justine Nolan, a professor in Sydney at the faculty of law and justice at the University of New South Wales, said it was also an opportunity for foreign companies to demonstrate their support for human rights.
“They are now being put to the test,” she added. “This is the red line for them — and it’s not an issue that they can afford to be halfhearted about.”
Reporting and research were contributed by Coral Yang, Claire Fu, Chris Buckley and Elsie Chen.
The fashion retailer H&M is facing a potential boycott in China after a statement the company made last year expressing deep concerns over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang stirred a social media storm this week.
A similar statement from Nike was also attracting criticism on Wednesday, a sign that Western clothing manufacturers could face growing hostility in China for their public stances against forced labor in Xinjiang and for halting cotton sourcing from the region.
The H&M statement, which can be found on the website of the Swedish retailer, was posted in September after growing global scrutiny around the use of Uyghurs in forced labor in Xinjiang.
In it, H&M said that it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethno-religious minorities” in Xinjiang and that it had stopped buying cotton from growers in the region.
Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.
“Want to make money in China while spreading false rumors and boycotting Xinjiang cotton? Wishful thinking!” the group said in a post, echoing one of the People’s Liberation Army’s statements that called H&M’s stance “ignorant and arrogant.”
On Monday, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the region, where authorities have used coercive labor programs and mass internment to remold as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities into model workers obedient to the Communist Party.
Nike could be next. The company posted a statement on its website expressing concerns “about reports of forced labor in and connected to” Xinjiang. “Nike does not source products” from the region, and “we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
On Wednesday, Nike was at the top of Weibo’s “hot search” list. Some users were furious that Nike had joined the boycott of cotton from the region. The company declined to comment.
a statement, saying that she no longer had a relationship with the brand and that “national interests are above all else.”
By Wednesday evening, at least three major Chinese e-commerce platforms — Pinduoduo, Jingdong and Tmall — had removed H&M from search results and withdrawn its products from sale. The actions underscored the pressures faced by foreign companies doing business in China while navigating political and cultural debates like the country’s sovereignty and its checkered human rights record.
On Wednesday night, H&M China responded with a post on the Sina Weibo microblogging site, saying the company did not “represent any political position.”
“H&M Group respects Chinese consumers as always,” the statement said. “We are committed to long-term investment and development in China.”
H&M is the world’s second-largest fashion retailer by sales, after Inditex, the owner of Zara, and China is its fourth-biggest market.
The state broadcaster CCTV criticized H&M, and said it was “a miscalculation to try to play a righteous hero.” H&M, it said, “will definitely pay a heavy price for its wrong action.”