A cotton picker works in a cotton farm in Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on October 23, 2020 (XINHUA)
Anni Guli, a Uygur video blogger from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region didn't expect a video she shared online over two years ago to suddenly go viral last month.
Anni Guli filmed the video on a cotton farm in Xinjiang in October 2018, during the cotton harvesting season. In the video she showed how a cotton picker worked on the farm. "This cotton picker costs 5 million yuan ($761,000) and can pick around 300 tons of cotton a day. It is superb," she said in the video.
The video was "unearthed" by Chinese netizens as proof that allegations of "forced labor" in Xinjiang's cotton industry are false. Recently, a number of major international apparel retailers have accused Xinjiang's cotton industry of using "forced labor" to harvest cotton. However, Anni Guli's video provides powerful evidence of the mechanization of the region's cotton industry.
The cotton issue
Allegations of "forced labor" in Xinjiang's cotton production have been escalating over the last 12 months. In March 2020, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a Switzerland-based organization established to certify compliance with industry standards by the world's cotton producers, announced it would suspend business with licensed cotton growers in Xinjiang during the 2020-21 cotton season over allegations of "forced labor."
Some leading apparel retailers including H&M, Nike, Adidas and Puma, who are members of the BCI, responded by making public announcements not to use Xinjiang cotton for the same reason. These announcements were met by a barrage of backlash from Chinese netizens. A press conference held on March 25 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has drawn wider public attention to this issue.
When responding to questions from foreign media regarding the allegations and Chinese netizens' boycott of the brands involved, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the allegations were no more than "malicious lies concocted by a few anti-China forces in an attempt to smear China, undermine security and stability in Xinjiang, and frustrate China's development."
Figures from China Cotton Association show that the cotton output of Xinjiang accounted for 87 percent of the total output of China in 2020. The cotton growing industry in Xinjiang has boosted employment and played a major role in helping poor people shake off poverty.
"Anyone with some sense would see providing more job opportunities, especially for ethnic minority groups, as a good thing, because it will help improve their livelihoods," Hua said. "But some are bent on linking it with 'forced labor' and oppression, because they have been doing this themselves for hundreds of years in history."
Hua showed two pictures at the press conference. One was of black slaves being forced to work in cotton fields in the United States and the other was of cotton fields in Xinjiang, where more than 70 percent of the cotton is picked with machines.
The level of mechanization in cotton farming in Xinjiang is now very high, said Zhai Xueling, a researcher with the Research Center for Rural Economy under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. "Over 70 percent of the cotton farming work is accomplished by machines. In the southern part of the region, where most farmers plant cotton, the level is even higher, about 90 percent," Zhai revealed during a recent interview with The Beijing News.
"The lies regarding "forced labor" are cooked up by some so-called scholars and the media, and then the flames are fanned by anti-China forces," Hua said.
A farmer pours cotton seeds into a seeding machine in Shache County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on March 26 (XINHUA)
Behind the curtain
A dig into the background of the BCI provides a more detailed picture. Liu Haoran, a project manager with the BCI Shanghai office, revealed to China Central Television that many international human rights groups have played a role in the initiative's decision.
One of the groups is sponsored by the U.S.-based agency National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Both NED and HRW are known for fueling Hong Kong riots in 2019 and NED is known to have bankrolled anti-China groups in Hong Kong.
Liu said that the human rights groups demanded BCI suspend Xinjiang cotton certification, while also demanding that the BCI not publicly associate its decision with the human rights groups themselves.
Wu Yan, head of BCI's Shanghai office said they submitted reports resulting from two investigations along with reports compiled by third parties such as SGS, a Swiss multinational company that provides inspection, verification, testing and certification services, to BCI headquarters. The reports made clear that "not a single case of forced labor" has been found in Xinjiang since 2012. But BCI headquarters turned a blind eye to these reports and didn't amend its decision.
Cao Huiqing, head of the cotton cultivation branch of the China Cotton Association revealed that the cotton standards drafted by BCI are way behind the times. "The BCI's requirements for ethical cotton are pretty low," Cao said. "For example, certain pesticides it bans for use on cotton have already been prohibited in Xinjiang for over 30 years."
Compared with this, the requirements for growing cotton set out by the Stockholm Convention—a global treaty that took effect in 2004 to protect human health and the environment from pollutants, are higher than those of the BCI. Cotton growers in Xinjiang have all joined this treaty.
"The purpose of the BCI may never be about certifying the quality of cotton but about controlling cotton resources," Cao said. It has been discovered that a key sponsor of the BCI is the United States Agency for International Development, which relies heavily on membership fees paid by big U.S. and European companies.
"Now, the U.S. and its several Western allies are targeting the pure and white Xinjiang cotton. They imposed sanctions over the false accusation of the sensational 'crimes' of 'forced labor,' 'forced sterilization' and even 'genocide' in Xinjiang," Hua said, "Facts have proved time and again that the Xinjiang issue is by no means about ethnicity, religion or human rights, but an issue of fighting separatism, terrorism and interference."
At the Foreign Ministry's regular press conference on March 26, Hua showed journalists a video of Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, and former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, giving a speech in August 2018.
Wilkerson said in the video that the so-called "Xinjiang Uygur question" is nothing but a strategic U.S. plot to destabilize China from inside, adding that if the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) wanted to destabilize China, that would be the best way to do it—to form unrest, and join with Uygurs in putting pressure on China internally rather than from outside.
Wilkerson's remarks echoed comments from former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a lecture in April 2019. The CIA "lied, cheated, stole," he said, and "had entire training courses" devoted to such tactics.
Dozens of Chinese celebrities have terminated contracts or said they would cut ties with the brands involved, including Nike, Adidas, Puma, Converse, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Uniqlo. On March 25, Nike shares slid more than 3 percent on Wall Street, while Adidas sank more than 6 percent.
"Companies should avoid politicizing business matters like H&M did," Xu Guixiang, spokesperson of the regional government of Xinjiang said at a briefing on March 29.
On March 31, information from Reuters showed that H&M reported a pretax loss for the December-February period of $159 million against a profit of $286 million a year earlier. On the same day, the brand made a statement saying China is "a very important market" and that its commitment to the country "remains strong."
"We comply with local laws and regulatory frameworks in all the markets where we operate. We want to be a responsible buyer, in China and elsewhere," the statement said.
But Chinese consumers said they will not accept the statement as it has no sincerity and such a statement was unlikely to win the forgiveness of the Chinese people.
"China is open and we welcome foreign enterprises and people to do business, live and work in China. And we reject any malicious attack on China and also attempts to undermine China's interests on the basis of rumors and lies," Hua said on March 26. "One thing is for sure: the Chinese people wouldn't allow foreigners to reap benefits in China on the one hand and smear China on the other."
(Print Edition Title: Curtain of Cotton)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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