Uyghur Solidarity Campaign protesters invaded flagship Oxford Street stores on 5 March, demanding that global corporations – including Nike, H&M and Microsoft – cut ties with factories using Chinese-state-directed ethnic forced labour programmes.
Workers’ Liberty activists have played a central role in building UK labour movement solidarity with the Uyghur people and other Turkic minorities in the north-western Xinjiang province (known to the Uyghurs as East Turkestan). The Chinese state has targeted them with brutal, industrial-scale persecution: it has locked more than a million in internment camps; imposed a suffocating surveillance regime; separated children from families; and suppressed political, cultural and religious expression.
In recent years, a trickle of reports have indicated that the repression is moving into a new phase. Government-directed programmes are hiring out “batches” of Uyghur workers to factories, not just in East Turkestan but across China.
Now, a new investigation by researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (bit.ly/ASPIUyghurs) has lain bare the extent of the programmes coercively transferring Uyghurs out of their homeland to toil in factories that supply a myriad of multinational corporations. The dozens of brands implicated include Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Gap, H&M, Puma, BMW, Samsung and Sony.
State media claims that participation is voluntary. But the programmes are tied to the threat of arbitrary detention in the camps, and other punishments for the workers and their families. And transferred Uyghurs live and work under intense surveillance, with segregated dormitories, canteens and transport.
One advert encouraging businesses to hire “batches” of transferred workers aged 16-18 boasted that advantages included: “can withstand hardship”; “semi-military style management” by “government-appointed cadres”; and the option for managers to request police stationed around the clock “for in-factory management”. One factory supplying Nike was secured with inward-facing barbed wire, watchtowers, and facial recognition cameras monitoring the gate.
The political indoctrination efforts of the internment camps extend into the labour programmes too. Outside work hours, Uyghur workers attend “patriotic education”.
A Xinjiang newspaper report boasted that they were being taught to “alter their ideology and… understand the Party’s blessing”, and at work to “follow discipline, obey management”. A local government labour office stressed the need to “turn around their ingrained lazy, lax, slow, sloppy, freewheeling, individualistic ways so they obey company rules.”
In words that echo the patronising, racist European colonisers who claimed they were “civilising savages”, state media even bragged about the hygiene lessons bestowed on the “backward” Uyghur workers, making them “more physically attractive”.
This is unsurprising when China is understood as an empire – a “prison house of nations”, just as Lenin and others described the Tsarist Russian empire. East Turkestan, Tibet, and the homelands of other minority nationalities are brutally controlled by the Beijing state.
Its campaign against the Uyghurs aims to dissolve their national identity in order to atomise desires for autonomy or independence. This is an effort to protect the Chinese ruling class’s economic interests: in East Turkestan’s fossil fuel reserves and in its planned position as a Belt & Road trade route nexus.
The latest revelations show how the state is also using violent coercion to convert a relatively rural, agrarian population into a compliant, beaten-down, “re-educated” workforce that generates more profits for industrial capitalists. Proof – as if more were needed – that the Chinese “Communist” Party’s claim to stand for “socialism” and “anti-imperialism” is a sick joke.
That lie makes it all the more vital for real socialists and trade unionists to build solidarity with the Uyghurs and all those workers and oppressed peoples suffering under the iron fist of the Chinese ruling class. In doing so, we stand up for what socialism is really about.
The Uyghur Solidarity Campaign plans to build on its monthly embassy protests by turning up the heat on businesses connected to – and profiting from – the Chinese state’s repression of the Uyghur people.
We are calling on the labour and trade union movements to step up solidarity work. Workers’ Liberty activists have already played a central role in passing motions in local labour parties; Labour’s national conference; branches of Unison, RMT and NEU; and the PCS national executive.
We must do more to put these motions into action by mobilising members, and spread the campaign further – particularly to the workforces of the businesses involved, who are in a unique position to exert leverage.