What once seemed surely unthinkable has become, in just a few years, irrefutable. The evidence amassed by scholars, journalists and campaigners of grotesque human rights abuses in Xinjiang has begun to cut through to the wider public. On Thursday, the France and Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann cut his commercial ties to the Chinese tech giant Huawei, saying there were “strong suspicions” that it has contributed to the repression of Uighurs. His statement followed a report that Huawei tested a facial recognition system developed by artificial intelligence firm Megvii that could be used to identify Uighurs and trigger an alert to their presence. (Huawei has said that its technologies are not designed to identify ethnic groups.)
In parallel, a rare leak of a prisoner list from a camp has shown how a government data programme has targeted Uighurs for detention simply for being young, using VPNs, or speaking to relatives abroad. These stories offer a truly chilling vision of a hi-tech surveillance society and give the lie to China’s claims that its actions in Xinjiang are focused on targeting terrorism and separatism, and do not treat a population as inherently suspect.
The government initially denied the existence of mass detention camps – in which around a million people are thought to have been held without charge or trial – before saying that they were education centres for alleviating poverty and preventing extremism. More recently it said that people had been released. But analysis suggests a growing use of imprisonment, with not only individuals but families handed lengthy sentences, and of forced labour. Other Uighurs live under the surveillance of officials sent to stay in their homes, as well as omnipresent security cameras.
Now outsiders are paying attention. A year ago, Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, suggested that firms were starting to ask themselves how appropriate their investment in the region was, because “no company can ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being held in camps”. The National Basketball Association severed links with a training centre in Xinjiang this summer. The region’s cotton exports, thought to account for around a fifth of the world’s supply, are also in the spotlight given the growing concerns about forced labour. H&M no longer sources products from the region. The Trump administration has banned cotton exports from the XPCC, part of the Chinese state and one of the country’s largest producers.
Yet when Mesut Özil spoke out about the treatment of the Uighurs last year, Arsenal distanced the club from his remarks. Last month, Volkswagen defended its Xinjiang plant, saying there is no forced labour there. And the New York Times has reported that companies including Nike and Coca-Cola have pressed the US Congress to water down the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act. Lobbyists say that, while they oppose human rights abuses, they fear the stringent legislation could cause unforeseen problems, in part because of the opacity of Chinese supply chains.
Beijing believes that what happens in Xinjiang is nothing to do with foreigners. But China’s economic might has made its business everyone’s business. Though officials show signs of unease at western pressure, economic means have their limits: China has plenty of export markets, and the leadership regards its political authority as far more critical than any sales ledger. Whether or not the west can curb these horrors, it must not profit from them, nor encourage those who do. Companies should, like Mr Griezmann, look to their consciences.