What does Disney’s—already problematic—live-action remake of “Mulan” have to do with an ongoing genocide, forced labour camps and unethical fashion? The link is a Turkic-Muslim ethnic minority in Chinese-occupied East Turkistan, renamed Xinjiang, whose name you might have heard before: the Uyghurs (also known as Uighurs).
WHO ARE THE UYGHURS?
It’s unlikely that you’ve never heard of the Uyghur humanitarian crisis. The name probably sounds familiar to you. But, you may not be able to figure out why. (And that’s part of the problem.) Either way, we need to talk about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.
Two years ago, UN human rights experts called for China to do two things. (1) Shut down political “re-education camps” for Uyghurs. And (2) immediately release Uyghurs detained on the “pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism”. At the time, the UN had reviewed China’s records (dating back all the way to 2009) and estimated that “from tens of thousands to upwards of a million Uyghurs” were detained in the Xinjiang province in China. Without being charged or tried.
Independent experts revealed that they received many credible reports that the number was actually a million. And that they were being held in a “massive internment camp […] shrouded in secrecy”. One expert described it as a “no-rights zone”. Muslim Uyghurs were being forced to disavow their religious beliefs, criticise themselves and their loved ones, give thanks to the ruling Communist party, and were even beaten and killed. Not only were the Uyghurs detained, but they were also subject to security crackdowns: including all-encompassing digital surveillance, mass deployment of police and severe regulations against religious customs and dress.
China’s response? It denied the existence of such internment camps but said that criminals involved in minor offences would be re-educated. It has also said that Xinjiang faces serious threats from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority and ethnic Han Chinese majority.
And all of these things you were just reading about? It’s still happening, right now.
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What is happening to the Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in East Turkistan currently meets the definition of genocide set by the Genocide Convention of 1951. Yet, many are hesitant to call it what it is, halting necessary action to investigate and hold China accountable for its genocidal policies. Using the term “genocide” is more than semantics and is the difference between life and death for those in East Turkistan. – #freeuyghur #genocide #humanrights #china #uyghur
WHY HASN’T ANYTHING BEEN DONE?
In July 2019, 22 countries issued a statement condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs. The response, of course, came late, for many reasons. In short: (1) China’s global standing and its government’s volatility, (2) the difficulty of getting information out of Xinjiang (the situation has been described as “informational warfare”) and—at the time—(3) it wasn’t clear whether or not Uyghurs were being overtly killed, raped or tortured.
But what put the ongoing genocide on the international radar, and what links this entire issue to (un)ethical fashion, was this: a scathing report, in July 2020, from the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. What did they find? That many of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers are complicit in the human rights violations perpetrated on the Uyghurs.
The coalition said that these brands and retailers (we’re talking over 180!) were sourcing cotton and yarn “produced through a vast state-sponsored system of detention and forced labour involving up to 1.8m U[y]ghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people in prison camps, factories, farms and internment camps in Xinjiang.” The amount of forced labour is “the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since the second world war.”
HOW FAR DOES IT GO?
China, the largest cotton producer in the world, has 84% of its cotton coming from the Xinjiang region. One in five cotton products sold globally is tainted with forced labour and human rights violations in Xinjiang. That’s how embedded this genocide is in the global fashion chain. We’re talking brands like Gap, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, H&M, Nike, Uniqlo, Zara, and more.
“Virtually the entire [global] apparels industry is tainted by forced U[y]ghur and Turkic Muslim labour,” the coalition said. Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said that “global brands need to ask themselves how comfortable they are contributing to a genocidal policy against the Uyghur people. These companies have somehow managed to avoid scrutiny for complicity in that very policy – this stops today.”
PS: Quick segue since we’re talking about complicity. We’ve known for decades that the fashion industry is complicit in modern-day slavery. This means it’s also complicit in… colonialism, oppression, racism and exploitation. (Just to name a few.) Acknowledging this, and the fact that the fashion revolution is just not happening fast enough, XR Boycott Fashion just rebranded to FASHION ACT NOW. FASHION ACT NOW is a campaign that is trying to hold fashion to account, after years of putting up with business-as-usual. It’s time to get moving.
What have fashion brands done in response to the exposure of this disturbing reality? H&M, Ikea and PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, said they would cease purchasing cotton from Xinjiang. Uniqlo said that no products are manufactured in the region. Muji confirmed that they would continue to use cotton yarn from the region, but denied that they were complicit in forced labour.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
But the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether brands and retailers stop purchasing from Xinjiang or not. In fact, according to Chloe Cranston, business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, there’s “a high likelihood that every high street and luxury brand runs the risk of being linked to what is happening”.
“This isn’t just about direct supply chain links, it’s about how the global apparels sector is helping prop up and facilitate the system of human rights abuses and forced labour. There needs to be a deep and thorough interrogation of how brands and retailers are linked to what is happening at scale to the U[y]ghur people.”
Which gets at the bigger picture: the Uyghur genocide is one—sickeningly inhumane—example of how the fashion industry, and the world, can turn a blind eye while being complicit in such modern-day human rights violations. (It’s not just fashion, by the way, it’s all kinds of industries.) Capitalism and globalisation, that fuel these industries, fuel—and invisibilise—these crimes.
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“I want to ask Disney how they managed to secure filming rights in one of the most restricted areas in the world while I cannot even get a word from the Chinese authorities about my sister. The answer is, of course, that the Chinese regime values money over human lives, and we must not be complicit in this ideology. Disney should not try to make a profit out of this." – @rushanabbas TAG @disney @mulan @nikicaro IN THE COMMENTS. — #boycottmulan
MULAN: TO BOYCOTT OR NOT TO BOYCOTT?
And so we come full circle to Disney’s “Mulan”, which was a trainwreck for many other reasons (which you might have heard about). But the worst part? The live-action remake was partly filmed in Xinjiang. And Disney even thanked eight government entities in the closing credits. So Disney joins the long list of corporations complicit in the genocide. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of this scandal is the fact that this has refocused attention back on the ongoing crisis.
Where does this leave us? Certainly, you can join the movement to #BoycottMulan, but don’t stop there. Take the first step to educate yourself on what’s going on (we’ve only just scratched the surface). Signal boost and keep talking about what’s going on in Xinjiang. Keep updated on the latest news about the Uyghurs. All this adds up collectively. We need to let governments and corporations know that we’re paying attention. And that we won’t stand for complicity in human rights violations.
As always, we need to remember that this is but one manifestation of everything that’s wrong with our capitalist economic system. The fact that anything we consume will always somehow be unethical is depressing, yes. But that’s even more reason to push for systemic change. Seeing that the system is flawed is the first step: now get other people to see it too.
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