Mustafa Aksu’s hometown is in an area punctuated by billowy fields of cotton, an agricultural prefecture of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in far western China.

As a child growing up in the 1990s, Aksu watched as middle-school-aged Uighur girls around him left Xinjiang under duress to work in garment factories in other parts of the country. He heard about how, when they tried to escape and return home, they were caught and sent back. When traveling in other parts of China, Aksu was refused service at hotels because he was Uighur.

Uighurs, who make up less than half of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million people, have historically resisted Chinese rule. In response, the Chinese government spreads messages that Xinjiang is roiling with separatist unrest, which authorities have variously blamed on religious extremism or “foreign hostile forces” hell-bent on “splitting the motherland.” In 2015, when Aksu left China to study in the United States, Chinese police were starting to establish checkpoints in Xinjiang and randomly stopping Uighurs on the street. But he says it was as if a switch was flipped in March 2017, culminating in persecution on a scale he had never seen before. That year, while he was still living in the United States, his parents told him over WeChat that he shouldn’t visit because they were experiencing “seasonal sandstorms.” He has now not seen or heard from his family in nearly three years.

“I’m not the only one,” says Aksu, who now works as program coordinator for research and advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, DC–based nonprofit. “Most of the Uighurs in the diaspora community have been unable to contact their family or talk to their loved ones.”

Even “model Uighurs”—those who have been careful not to contradict the Chinese government—now live in a climate of constant high-tech surveillance. Authorities have detained what human-rights groups now estimate to be at least 1.5 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslims in more than 1,000 concentration camps in Xinjiang. Beijing frames these camps as voluntary “vocational training” and “deradicalization” centers. But testimony from those who have escaped, as well as leaked Chinese Communist Party documents, reveal them to be more sinister, designed to obliterate minorities’ non-Han languages, heritage, and Muslim beliefs. Former detainees have described overcrowded cells and torture. One man told Time that he was thrown into a hole in the ground and punished with cold-water drenchings and severe beatings; the torture drove him to attempt suicide. There have been reports of routine sexual harassment, rape, and forced sterilization. German researcher Adrian Zenz has described the camps as “nothing less than a systematic campaign of cultural genocide.” Some have compared the scale of incarceration to the Holocaust.

Though Xinjiang is far from the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, some have expressed concern that conditions in the camps could increase the likelihood of propagating the disease. Last week, it was reported that the government may be cracking down on Uighurs even more with the advent of the virus, preventing people from leaving their homes to buy food or forcing them back to work in shuttered factories.

This system of incarceration has effects far beyond China’s borders. China is inextricable from global supply chains, as global material shortages during the coronavirus work stoppage have thrown into relief.

China is a major producer of the world’s cotton—and most of it is grown in Xinjiang, where human rights experts say that detainees are now being “graduated” into forced labor in regional factories, where they produce materials and goods for the textile, garment, and tech industries. More than 30 percent of US apparel imports hails from China. Odds are that some of the clothes you are wearing right now can be traced back to the region—where they may have been produced, at least in part, by incarcerated Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.

Satellite images, witness testimonies, and data published by Chinese companies and by the CCP itself reveal that prison and detainee labor feeds into cotton farms, processing plants, and textile and garment factories. Detainees are also being sent to factories around the country, where they live under intense surveillance. Even brands with rigorous corporate social-responsibility standards may be promoting conditions of forced labor and cultural erasure, however unwittingly.

On Sunday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report estimating that at least 80,000 Uighurs had been relocated to other parts of China between 2017 and 2019, where they were pressed into conditions “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor.” The think tank’s report also named 83 brands that had “directly or indirectly benefit[ed] from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs as recently as 2019”—including Adidas, Calvin Klein, L.L. Bean, Zara, and Uniqlo, among many others.

The day before the ASPI released its report, The Washington Post published a story about a longtime Nike supplier called Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co.—one of the sportswear giant’s largest factories—that appears to be using forced Uighur labor. A Nike spokesperson would only say that the sportswear giant was “committed to upholding international labor standards globally.”

Dr. Han Lianchao, vice president of the grassroots group Citizen Power Initiative for China, estimates that between 500,000 to and 800,000 prisoners in Xinjiang alone are being compelled to work at every link in China’s cotton value chain. “It’s really a cotton gulag,” he said.

The House of Representatives passed a bill late last year calling for sanctions over China’s treatment of Uighurs; it has yet to be signed into law. But the US and other world governments have thus far done little to address the entanglement between the goods their countries import and forced labor. That leaves it up to private companies to take action. If corporations wanted to act on their conscience (or avoid hits to their reputation), it would mean divesting from Xinjiang cotton and any other goods that may have been produced through this carceral system.

When dealing with China, however, experts say divestment is easier said than done.

While some of Xinjiang’s cotton is spun into yarn or woven into textiles locally, much is dispatched to other regions of China for processing. It may also be routed to neighboring countries before arriving in the United States, obscuring its provenance.

China has taken advantage of prison-camp labor—a Soviet-inspired practice—since at least the 1950s, and journalists have been reporting on the link between Chinese forced labor and Western companies for at least a year. But apparel firms that conduct business with China have, for the most part, been toothless on the issue.

In May 2019, The Wall Street Journal linked a cotton-yarn mill operated in the Xinjiang city of Aksu by Huafu Fashion—the world’s largest textile mill for colored yarns, and a major supplier to Western companies—with state-sponsored “vocational training” for ethnic minorities. The report implicated brands such as Adidas, Esprit, and H&M, all of which denied relationships with Huafu or other suppliers in Xinjiang. Huafu itself also denied that it used forced labor.

The Nation contacted several American retailers to ask whether they used cotton from Xinjiang, but none addressed the issue directly. A Gap Inc. spokesperson said that the retailer was “taking steps to better understand how [its] global supply chain may be indirectly impacted.” A Uniqlo spokesperson said the company had made inquiries with its production partners in China, but “did not find evidence of cotton originating from unethical sources.”

Both Uniqlo and another Japanese company, Muji, came under fire last year for advertising that some of their garments were made with Xinjiang cotton. An internal e-mail circulated by Muji in early November (and leaked to The Nation) told employees that products labeled as “Xinjiang cotton” would be retagged as “organic cotton.” The company also instructed retail staff to “refrain from answering questions” from customers about the “controversial circumstances” surrounding the issue of Xinjiang cotton and reeducation camps. (Muji did not respond to The Nation’s requests for comment.)

Some companies contacted, instead of confirming whether or not they used Xinjiang cotton, touted their participation in organizations that promote ethical fashion. An Adidas spokesperson pointed to its participation in the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit dedicated to improving workers’ lives worldwide, as proof of its commitment to “independent and unannounced factory inspections and external verification” of its suppliers. An H&M Group spokesperson mentioned the retailer’s “close dialogue” with sourcing partner Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international organization that promotes so-called “better” cotton grown with less water and fewer pesticides.

BCI, for its part, says it has found “no direct evidence that demonstrates that forced labor is being used” on BCI-licensed farms in Xinjiang. Huafu Fashion—the factory implicated in the Wall Street Journal report—is a BCI partner that sits on the organization’s council; BCI says Huafu commissioned an “independent social compliance audit” at the facility in question, and “did not identify any instances of forced labor.”

But, as Adrian Zenz wrote in December, “asking for an ‘independent social compliance audit’ in an environment as controlled as Xinjiang is like asking the fox to check that no hens are missing.” That same month, Zenz testified to the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that Huafu had received RMB 500 million ($71 million) in subsidies from the Xinjiang government, likely to train and employ detainees. According to official Chinese documents, “employing companies receive RMB 1,800 [$258] for each internment camp laborer they train, RMB 5,000 [$718] for each they employ, and a shipping cost subsidy of 4 percent of their sales volume.”

Gregory Schlegel, executive in residence at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University and founder of the Supply Chain Risk Management Consortium, says he isn’t surprised by the level of corporate prevarication. “The challenges of managing a global supply chain with hundreds and thousands of suppliers, agents, and contractors, in many, many countries is a daunting task,” he said. Tackling forced labor writ large requires “robust risk-management protocols,” continual employee training, and a level of supply-chain clarity that globalization has rendered nigh unattainable.

Polls have shown that, fueled by social media, consumer awareness about ethical issues in the fashion industry is higher than before. Respondents usually say they want fashion businesses to share information about how the workers who make their clothes are paid and treated. But any generalizations about “woke” millennial consumers and “social justice warriors” are just that—generalizations. One 2018 study of college students found that they can “willfully” ignore or forget facts about products that were made less than sustainably or ethically.

Nonetheless, businesses do want to hedge against the specter of cancellation. Nate Herman, senior vice president or policy at the American Apparel & Footwear Association—which represents hundreds of US apparel and footwear businesses and their suppliers—was quick to insist in an e-mail to The Nation that “any form” of forced labor was unacceptable.

“Our industry does not tolerate forced labor in our supply chains,” he wrote, “and it is a top priority to ensure that all workers in our supply chains—regardless of the country or region where we operate—work under safe, ethical, and humane conditions.”

The fashion industry has rallied to attack forced labor before. In Uzbekistan, authorities used to strong-arm an estimated 2.6 million students, teachers, and health care workers into the fields to pick cotton every year, often in hot, unsanitary conditions and for little to no pay. Raw cotton was one of the Central Asian country’s biggest products, making up around 50 percent of all its exports. Then a decade-long campaign by a global coalition spurred more than 300 North American and European brands to sign Responsible Sourcing Network’s Cotton Pledge to boycott Uzbek cotton, or to at least commit to not “knowingly” source it.

Patricia Jurewicz, founder and vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network, said they were able to use the leverage of pledge signatories to negotiate with the Uzbek government on “changes we wanted to see.” Exports of Uzbek cotton fell from 2.5 million bales a year to 700,000—a 70 percent drop, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. The Uzbek minister for foreign trade recently told S&P Global Market Intelligence that raw cotton now accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s exports.

Today, experts say the country has largely eliminated child labor in the cotton fields, and the current administration says it’s committed to stamping out the practice of forced labor altogether. The Cotton Campaign is now negotiating with Uzbek officials over further reforms necessary to modify or lift the pledge.

A similar campaign in Myanmar has been less successful. The Myanmar government has launched deadly attacks against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim ethnic minority; since a government crackdown in August 2017, at least 24,000 Rohingya have been killed and over 700,000 have been forced to flee to Bangladesh. The Myanmar military has been widely accused of genocide. According to the UN, the military’s leaders are also behind Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited—an opaque enterprise and the owner of an industrial park where factories have produced clothing for British, Hong Kong, and American retailers.

The UN has repeatedly called for targeted sanctions against businesses that support “extensive and systematic” human rights violations against civilians, even going as far as to suggest the complicity of foreign partners in war crimes such as killings, rapes, torture, and forced displacement. Last summer, Nikkei Asian Review reported that retailers such as Esprit and Marks & Spencer had severed relationships with Myanmar factories after the military connection came to light; others, such as Bestseller and H&M were still “investigating” the issue. European retailers C&A and Next did not respond to the publication’s requests for comment.

Divestment from Xinjiang cotton would be even more challenging than either of those scenarios. “We’re talking about multiple touch points along the supply chain,” says Leonie Barrie, apparel analyst at international analytics firm GlobalData. Pre-boycott, Uzbekistan was only the fifth-largest producer of cotton in the world; brands had other sourcing alternatives. Chinese cotton currently accounts for 22 percent of the global cotton market, according to global trade data. It has been difficult to extricate apparel companies from Myanmar, which exported $2.7 billion in garments in 2017. That same year, China exported $158 billion in garments.

Uyghur women

Uighur women in Kashgar, July 2017.

Chinese authorities have ramped up textile and apparel manufacturing as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure-expansion scheme known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Xinjiang, with its “cheap and compliant” minority labor force, is an integral part of that plan, according to Amy K. Lehr, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. According to an industrial development plan for the textile and garment sectors that was archived online before being deleted from Chinese government websites, the Xinjiang regional government aims to create 20 million spindles of cotton yarn, more than 50,000 looms, 250,000 tons of knitted fabrics, and 800 million garments between 2018 and 2023.

“The plan is that Xinjiang becomes a manufacturing hub and starts to ship finished goods west through Central Asia to Europe,” Lehr says.

Supply-chain visibility proponents have touted fiber-traceability systems, such as DNA tagging or fluorescent markers, that would allow companies to verify product origin. Those technologies are still in their infancy—and even if they weren’t, they can only confirm the type and source of the cotton used in an end product, skirting over the issue of workers entirely. “The actual production—the labor that goes into it—is very difficult, if not impossible to verify,” says Barrie.

Complicating matters is the fact that cotton produced in Xinjiang may be entering supply chains outside of China, through yarns exported to countries such as Bangladesh or Cambodia. A brand with no direct relationship with Chinese factories could still end up using Xinjiang cotton through other channels.

Still, Patricia Jurewicz doesn’t think it impossible for brands to mount a similar offensive to their Uzbekistan campaign against Xinjiang cotton. She says it would just take more time and a “combination of divesting and beefing up due diligence, monitoring, and compliance.”

It is illegal to import goods into the United States that were produced using forced labor. In October, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) blocked the entry of Costco baby sleepers from a clothing manufacturer in Xinjiang after reviewing information indicating they were “produced, in whole or in part, using forced labor.” (Costco said in a subsequent statement that it had “no reason to believe” the sleepers were “inappropriately sourced.”) The same month, the Trump administration added more than two dozen Chinese firms to an export blacklist, allegedly because of concerns about those firms’ role in Beijing’s policies against minorities. This essentially prevented the companies from obtaining American technology. This blacklist was most likely saber rattling over trade, however, rather than a sign of genuine concern for Muslims’ rights. (See Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” which remains unresolved.)

Han of the Citizen Power Initiative for China says his organization is working with CBP to identify other potential offenders from Xinjiang, following a petition from 37 human rights and faith organizations urging the agency to ban the imports of all cotton, textile, and apparel products from China. In a statement to The Nation, a CBP spokesperson says the agency is “continually looking at and evaluating allegations of forced labor from around the world.”

In October, US representatives James P. McGovern and Marco Rubio, cochairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, solicited testimonies about the use of mass internment and forced labor in Xinjiang. Rubio has since urged Congress to pass a bill that would not only condemn the detention of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities but also require the State Department to evaluate whether Chinese officials should be sanctioned for their roles in cultural and religious oppression.

While governments have a “key role to protect” human rights, says Chloe Cranston, business and human rights manager at the UK advocacy group Anti-Slavery International, companies are not off the hook. “Given the scale of the crisis, the pressure on brands to take action will increase,” Cranston says. “And with the size of the system, it’s likely there will be more exposés of well-known high-street brands linked to forced labor in the region.”

This week’s report on forced labor prompted some brands, including Adidas, to tell the ASPI that they had no direct contractual relationships with the suppliers listed in the report. But so far none of them have been able to rule out any links further down their supply chain. Cranston says the worst thing fashion firms can do is ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

“Companies have responsibility to respect human rights, too,” she says. “There is a clear need for brands to take a stand on this, and to consider how their combined leverage could force change on this issue.”