republicworld– Accusations of forced labor helped send a leading Chinese cotton yarn maker into the red last year, but a company official who called the charges fake news said recently that Huafu Fashion Co. has weathered the storm. The allegations and ensuing U.S. trade sanctions have dealt a blow to some companies in China’s cotton industry, as major customers from Adidas to H&M cut ties, but it remains unclear whether they will compel the government and companies to change their ways.
Forced labor is part of broader human rights concerns in Xinjiang, a major cotton-producing region that is home to the largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic group. In a crackdown since 2017 that followed a series of militant attacks, the Chinese government has detained a million people or more and been accused of mass incarcerations, forced sterilization, cultural and religious suppression and torture. Xinjiang officials deny the charges and say they are unbowed by Western pressure.
In a bid to refute the allegations, they took about a dozen foreign journalists into a sprawling Huafu Fashion factory complex in the city of Aksu, where General Manager Li Qiang said 780,000 spindles churn out 100,000 tons of colored yarn annually for sportswear and other items. The company lost money in 2020 for the first time in its 27-year history, Li said. He blamed “fake news” in a 2019 Wall Street Journal story for a sharp fall in orders, but said the company has bounced back by shifting to the domestic market.
Evidence of forced labor comes from both testimonies of those who have left China and leaked government documents, but it is difficult to prove definitively at a specific factory. Diplomats and journalists travelling independently to the region are followed, and most residents, wary of getting in trouble with authorities, are unwilling to talk critically. An ethnic Kazakh woman from Xinjiang, who has since fled to neighboring Kazakhstan, said she was forced to work for a week sewing uniforms in a factory in 2018 after spending the better part of a year in detention. Dina Nurdybai, who ran a clothing business with 30 employees before she was picked up, said she was released after authorities realized she was not on a list of long-term detainees. The factory work was not voluntary, she said.
The government dismisses such testimonies as fabrications. One Huafu worker, Paziliya Tursan, said above the hum of the spindles on the factory floor that reports of forced labor are nonsense. Chinese authorities also took the foreign journalists to a 40-hectare (100-acre) cotton field that was being planted by machine, and said that mechanization has eliminated the need for most workers. It’s proof, they say, that there is no forced labor.
But not all of Xinjiang’s cotton fields are mechanized. Picking cotton is more difficult to do by machine than planting it. The Xinjiang government said that machine picking southern Xinjiang rose from 35% of the total acreage in 2019 to 53% in 2020, but acknowledged that farmers still plant and harvest by hand in many places. Nurdybai, the Kazakh ex-detainee, warned against taking state-arranged interviews in Xinjiang at face value, saying she and others she knew were coerced into praising the government’s policies. “You can’t even say a single word freely,” she said.