Japan’s Muji Stops Short of Ban on Cotton From Xinjiang, Where Forced Labor is Rife

The company says it has stopped exporting Xinjiang-sourced cotton items to the U.S. following an import ban.

Japanese clothing and lifestyle brand Muji says it has stopped exporting cotton sourced in Xinjiang to the United States, but rights groups say the company has done little to remove Xinjiang cotton -- which has been linked forced labor by mostly ethnic Uyghur detainees who have committed no crime -- from its supply chain.

The company said in comments e-mailed to RFA that since the outgoing Trump administration had banned imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang last month, it had stopped exporting items made with Xinjiang cotton there "to comply with U.S. laws and regulations."

The ban, which came after reports emerged that the mass incarceration camps in Xinjiang were increasingly linked to lucrative production processes using forced labor, allows customs officials to stop items they believe originate in Xinjiang from entering the U.S.

"We are no longer exporting any products containing Xinjiang cotton to the United States, since the order," the company's public relations team said by e-mail.

It said the company has other sources of cotton than China, including supply lines in India, Turkey and the U.S.

But it stopped short of saying it would stop using cotton from Xinjiang.

The U.K. and Canada also made coordinated announcements last month to help prevent British and Canadian businesses from being complicit in, or profiting from, human rights violations in Xinjiang, amid growing calls for governments around the world to respond to what rights groups say is systematic and escalating abuses in the region.

But the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the moves weren't enough.

"The measures in the U.K. fall well short of those introduced by Canada and recently strengthened in the United States, namely the prohibition of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labor," the group said in a commentary last month.

Forced labor in cotton sector
The group cited "credible complaints of forced labor, against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton."

Dina Nudabey, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang's Ili prefecture and former detainee in China's vast network of internment camps, said Muji still needs to do more.

"This is unfair," Nudabey told RFA. "A lot of countries don't seem to be able to wean themselves off Chinese textiles, because they're so cheap."

"They are paying good money for cotton that was made by forced labor, by unpaid workers," she said. "They have been relying on [Xinjiang products] for so long that they can't seem to stop usin them."

She said trade and economic sanctions don't appear to have deterred the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from its policies in Xinjiang, so more efforts are needed.

"China doesn't really care what the U.S. does [in terms of sanctions], because they already have so many people locked up," she said.

Shih Chien-yu of the Taiwan Institute of Central Asia said businesses appear reluctant to act on Xinjiang forced labor, with huge vested interests both inside China and overseas.

"Xinjiang cotton is cheap, and [businesses] don't care about the camps; they only care about making a profit," Shih said. "There has yet to be a clear signal on how the world defines what is happening in Xinjiang, and on how that should be linked to trade behavior."

On the last day of the Trump administration, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a declaration that Beijing was committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other minorities.

In the U.K., while legal experts have also said there is a credible case to support this view, the government has used procedural tactics to evade an attempt by ruling Conservative Party backbenchers in Parliament to bring a legislative amendment that would allow a court to rule on the situation in Xinjiang.

'They need a kick or a prod'
Lawyers at Essex Court Chambers in London cited reports that since 2017, authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps as part of a “de-extremification” scheme, the rights group Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) said in a statement.

The opinion found that “the crime of genocide is occurring, as there is evidence of an intent to destroy the Uyghur population as such, including through a pattern of Chinese state-mandated conduct.”

Hundreds of thousands are also believed to be engaged in forced labor both inside and outside the camps, it said.

Campaigner Yang Zhengxian said companies like Muji are unlikely to act unilaterally, or without pressure from consumers and governments.

"They need a kick or a prod, because what they are doing right now is unacceptable," Yang said. "Muji is making it very clear that it doesn't care about the U.S. market, which isn't a surprise."

He said the company is likely trying to protect its access to the China market by being circumspect about its Xinjiang connection.

"This is partly because the Chinese government is so sensitive on the topic of Uyghurs, so they will make it clear, explicitly or implicitly, that companies that have a major stake in the China market need to show some restraint when it comes to criticizing Uyghur forced labor in public," Yang said.

Human rights activist Serekjan Bilash, who has been arrested for leading an international campaign against the Xinjiang camps, has previously told RFA that the forced labor textiles business is making some powerful people in the region very rich, including local government officials and police chiefs.

Rights groups estimate that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn from Xinjiang.

Reported by Gigi Lee and Chan Yun Nam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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