The nation billing itself as a “worker’s paradise” has become the largest driver of slaves in the world. When we speak of slavery in Communist China, we do not mean it as a metaphor. Red China is practicing real, modern-day slavery — holding people in bondage and forcing them to labor for someone else’s benefit.
Western society has largely ignored the problem for the same reason we turn a blind eye to all sorts of atrocities out of Red China: we like to buy the cheap stuff they make. Strikingly, despite our national obsession with the historical slavery that occurred in America’s past, we hesitate to mention the offense happening in China right now for all the world to see.
Everything we import from Communist China reinforces their inhumane system. This was true before their widespread use of Uighur slaves was made known (communist countries are all unfree in some ways).
Now that we know beyond a doubt, however, that thousands and thousands of Uighurs are imprisoned for racial and religious reasons and compelled to labor, we must reconsider our relations with the new Slave Power rising in the East. Our trade with China is, to paraphrase William Lloyd Garrison, a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.
Rise of a New Slave Power
The Chinese state has persecuted the Uighur people in their western region for decades, but only recently has this war on China’s own people reached proportions that could reasonably be called genocidal. The Uighurs’ adherence to Islam and non-Chinese ways of life stand in the way of the atheist state’s steamroller effort to impose uniformity. Indeed, since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in China, the nation has adopted more forceful measures against dissidents, especially among the Uighurs.
Announced in 2014, Xi’s “people’s war on terror” led to more than 1 million Uighurs being held in concentration camps by 2018, along with Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and various other Muslims, Christians, and political dissenters. By 2020, reports emerged that China was not merely imprisoning and “re-educating” these people (although that would have been bad enough). Sadly, we now know the communist state is leasing out its bondsmen to toil against their will in factories and on farms.
According to a 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in “conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.” The report continues:
The estimated figure is conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher. In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances.
That does not even get into the forced abortions and sterilizations that Communist China has always imposed on these and other citizens of their country.
The Willful Blindness of Corporations
Western corporations implicated in the report profess shock and ignorance at what has transpired there. Nike says it’s “concerned about reports of forced labor,” maintaining the company has “strengthened” its “audit protocols” to identify “emerging risks related to potential labor transfer programs” — a perfect concatenation of corporate buzzwords that means a promise they are really looking into it this time.
Other industry responses are similar. In a statement to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Abercrombie & Fitch maintains, “Our sourcing and sustainability teams closely monitor our network of suppliers to ensure we only work with organizations aligned with our principles and values.”
The Gap says it’s “taking steps to better understand how our global supply chain may be indirectly impacted, including working with our suppliers and actively engaging with industry trade groups, expert stakeholders, and other partners to learn more and advance our shared commitment to respecting human rights.”
Apple proclaims it’s “dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Fine words. But what do they mean? Are any of these companies moving production out of China and into a non-slaveholding country? No. Of course not.
Guilt Pervades the System
We’ve heard this all before from companies that do business in China because they issued the same phony responses to reports that factories there used illegal child labor. They start with denial, promise to investigate, and then maybe, years later, cut ties with a supplier whose use of children in its factories is too obvious to be ignored. Apple took three years to end its relationship with a child labor factory when the crime was discovered in 2013.
Why didn’t they know about the infraction in the first place? Because they did not want to know. It was not in their interest to know. Everyone was making money, and if some unscrupulous industrialist in a city their customers have never heard of is breaking the law, well, as long as Apple’s hands weren’t dirtied directly, no one would kick up much of a fuss. But their hands were dirty then and they are dirtier now. So are all of ours when we buy their products.
Last term, Congress tried to do something about it. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio became law with President Trump’s signature in 2020. Apple and others, however, lobbied hard against the bill, although it imposes sanctions on the people and entities responsible for human rights abuses in China and requires investigation into the subject. That is a good start, but it does not go far enough.
Slavery will continue in China as long as it is profitable for slavedrivers. It took a Civil War to end slavery in this country and considerable efforts for the other world powers to abandon the practice. Sanctions send a good message but cannot do any good when the governments of free nations are unable to monitor what goes on behind the new iron curtain. China will say these accusations are untrue, the corporations will say that they see no evil, and nothing will change.
Pressed on these issues last month, President Joe Biden responded with moral relativism, giving lip service to human rights while chalking up the way China treats its people to “different norms.” Too many in his administration and in both major parties are deeply invested in trade with China. Government, like big business, will say soothing things and promise investigations. But nothing will fundamentally change at that level.
Change will not come from those with a vested interest in the status quo. In the late 1700s, abolitionists in Britain boycotted sugar, one of the biggest products of African slavery in the Americas. Led by William Wilberforce — an evangelical Christian and member of Parliament — they called for Britons to give up one of the most prominent fruits of the slave system.
Sugar (and rum, its by-product) were popular goods, then as now. Having failed to convince Parliament to change the law, these abolitionists sought to make slavery less profitable while removing themselves from the chain of coercive commerce.
They were not successful overnight, but Britain eventually banned the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833. The boycott alone did not do all of this, but making an issue of something most Englishmen were content to ignore helped. “It is now brought so directly before our eyes that his House must decide,” Wilberforce said in a 1791 speech to Parliament, “and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and the principles of their decision.”
Believe in Something
Being against slavery in 2021 hardly feels revolutionary, but it is not a universally held position in corporate boardrooms and government offices. Nike likes to tell us that we should “believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” They will not sacrifice a penny of their profits to make their products in a free labor country, but we do not have to be a part of that calculus. There are other sneakers. There are other clothes and other cell phones, too. We do not have to make a “covenant with death.”
Students of history often wonder how ordinary people could consume the products of slavery without giving a second thought to the unfree men and women forced to produce them.
But it is easy to ignore far-off hardships, and that is just what we’re all doing right now. When we buy clothes made in China, where enslaved Uighurs are picking cotton, we are no different than those nineteenth-century people who ignored the sources of cotton in the American South or sugar in the West Indies.
It is hard to take action as an individual and easy to feel helpless. If I refuse to buy an iPhone, will it make any difference in a world where Apple sells millions of them? But acting together can raise an issue high enough that even the most elevated ranks of society are forced to look at it. If activists on the left can call for boycotts over every infraction of woke dogma, why should regular people not do the same over a practice as horrible as slavery?
We cannot force Apple or Nike to run ethical supply chains. But we can — and should — make the issue so prominent in people’s minds that they can’t look at an iPad or a pair of Jordans without thinking of concentration camps, genocide, and slavery.