After H&M and Nike were boycotted by Chinese shoppers this week, British designer Burberry is the first luxury brand to be targeted in a backlash against Western sanctions imposed over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. As of now, the region is one of the world’s top cotton producers.
The latest row comes after the US, UK, Canada and the EU imposed sanctions on China this week targeting senior officials in Xinjiang who they say are overseeing forced labour, sexual abuse and rape, and mass detention of Uighur and ethnic minority groups in the region. China has denied this and accused the Western nations of “disinformation,” while it has imposed its own sanctions on European and UK officials in retaliation.
On Thursday 25 March, Burberry’s brand ambassador and actress Zhou Dongyu halted her contract with the brand, with her agency saying the luxury company had not “clearly and publicly stated its stance on cotton from Xinjiang,” according to a statement reported by Reuters.
One Hong Kong lawmaker said she would no longer buy Burberry products.
According to Forbes, the brand’s trademark beige, black and red plaid was also removed Thursday from one of China’s best-performing video games, Tencent-owned Honor of Kings, days after the partnership between Burberry and the video game was announced.
The decision was linked to Burberry’s membership of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a cotton sustainability project that last year suspended its links to Xinjiang over alleged human rights and labour abuses. In recent months, pressure has mounted on retailers to cut the use of Xinjiang cotton as growing evidence suggests that up to a million people from the region’s majority Muslim Uighur population have been detained in labour camps where they were allegedly forced to pick cotton and work for garment makers.
The backlash appeared to begin when the Communist Party’s Youth League on Wednesday called attention to a statement initially issued by the Swedish company H&M last year. It also prompted users to look for previously issued statements by other foreign retailers on Xinjiang, such as Nike.
The original statement from H&M said it was “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang.”
The Nike statement is undated and reads: “We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
While Burberry has not yet responded to the accusations it is facing, the company has banned the use of Xinjiang cotton and told the UK government business committee in November: “We do not have any operations in Xinjiang, nor work with any suppliers based there.”
In 2020, China’s luxury market grew by 48 per cent according to Bain, securing the country as the world’s fastest-growing market for luxury goods and increasingly important for luxury brands. For luxury brands that were shuttered in other global markets because of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has proved to be a lifeline.
While the global luxury market dropped by nearly a quarter in 2020, China doubled its share of the global luxury market to 20 per cent. China’s mounting pressure on brands to overturn their ban on Xinjiang cotton means luxury brands face being squeezed in a confrontation between Western governments and China.
Whether other luxury brands that are part of the BCI will be targeted remains unsure. Louis Vuitton’s owner LVMH is also part of the BCI. The company has previously said it does not directly purchase raw materials and has not previously disclosed how much of the cotton used by its brands hails from China, according to Business of Fashion.
However, with the Uighur issue becoming an increasing problem between China and the rest of the world, it might soon get trickier for Western brands to operate in both markets.
Recent months have seen the world’s gaze fixed on ongoing protests against mainland China in Hong Kong. However, in the past few weeks, leaked documents have turned a certain amount of attention elsewhere, to the Xinjiang province in the West of the country. Limited reports have trickled out of the region since 2014, usually to be immediately denied by government officials. Such reports describe detention and concentration camps holding an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims throughout the province.
Recently, 400 pages of internal government documents were leaked to the New York Times, and last week saw the release of the China Cables, a cache of classified government papers obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). This Is Not Dystopian Fiction. This Is China reads the New York Times’ headline while the Guardian followed shortly with ‘Allow no escapes’: leak exposes reality of China’s vast prison camp network. The Embassy of China in London immediately responded to the Guardian’s reports: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”
The past few years have seen extreme crackdowns on terrorism and extremism—this often serves as an excuse for ethnic persecution and religious suppression. The Guardian reporters note: “Chinese authorities have split up families, targeted the Uighur language and culture for suppression, razed cultural and historic sites and criticised even mild expression of Muslim identity, micromanaging everything from beard length to babies’ names.”
The wider pattern of disinformation and doublethink is terrifying. The documents obtained and released in translation included answers for questions that authorities were expecting from students returning home from university, only to find their parents gone. Student protests have a long and complicated history in China. “The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared,” stated one of the many pages leaked.
One of the documents is titled Tactics from Turpan City for answering questions asked by the children of concentrated education and training school students. In it, “concentrated education and training school” is the euphemistic term used to describe the extensive network of indoctrination camps across the region.
“Where are my family members?” returning students are expected to ask. The scripted reply with “They’re in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study and instruction. They have very good conditions for studying and living there, and you have nothing to worry about.”
It’s worth reading through the translated documents in full, but a short extract illustrates the terrifying reality. The word ‘Orwellian’ is generally overused, particularly in recent years, but here it could not be more apt. “Did they commit a crime?” a student might ask. “Will they be convicted?”
The directed response has to be: “They haven’t committed a crime and won’t be convicted. It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts, and if they don’t quickly receive education and correction, they’ll become a major active threat to society and to your family. It’s very hard to totally eradicate viruses in thinking in just a short time.”
In order to comfort students, camps promise the possibility of arranging video meetings, yet the Chinese Embassy has simultaneously stated that “trainees could go home regularly.” Authorities have promised that the camps offer useful vocational training, yet detainees include scholars, civil servants and entertainers.
This is not what one would expect from an anti-terror campaign; rather, it is what happens when an authoritarian government cracks down on a disenfranchised minority. These documents expose, as the Times put it, “the paranoia of totalitarian leaders who demand total fealty in thought and deed and recognise no method of control other than coercion and fear.”
‘Round up everyone who should be rounded up’ (‘ying shou jin shou’ in Chinese) is a phrase that has seen a resurgence since the appointment of Chen Quanguo to Xinjiang, a new party boss who has been accused of overzealousness in the past. This phrase was previously used to encourage officials to be focussed and careful when collecting taxes or harvests. Now, it is being used to describe the mass detention of citizens. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.” This isn’t from ‘1984′—this is China under Xi Jinping.