xinjiang chinese flag

The plight of the Uyghurs in China has officially been declared a genocide by outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, giving fashion all the more reason to strengthen oversight in its supply chain. 

That designation — on Pompeo’s last full day in office before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in — caps a series of escalating warnings and actions in reaction to the treatment of the Muslim minority group in the far west province of Xinjiang. 

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned all goods made of cotton from the region in an effort to combat “slave labor.” 

Xinjiang has few apparel factories, but it is a force in cotton, accounting for 20 percent of global supply. While much of that is used for goods sold in China, cotton is mixed and distributed globally, putting brands in a position to prove that the cotton in the goods they bring into the U.S. wasn’t grown in Xinjiang.

Before the ban, activists were pushing brands to pull out from Xinjiang, but Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. was the only major player to commit to not using goods from the region. Groups are racing to strengthen ways to trace raw materials through the supply chain, an effort that could also lend help in other areas, such as ensuring goods are sustainably produced.

Now the push to help the Uyghurs officially has a new — and extremely ugly — designation as well as a call by Pompeo for collective action to address the problem, a bit of last-minute multilateralism from the generally go it alone administration of President Donald Trump.

“Our exhaustive documentation of the [People’s Republic of China’s] actions in Xinjiang confirms that since at least March 2017, local authorities dramatically escalated their decadeslong campaign of repression against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz,” Pompeo said. 

“PRC authorities have conducted forced sterilizations and abortions on Uyghur women, coerced them to marry non-Uyghurs, and separated Uyghur children from their families,” he said. “Party apparatchiks have denied international observers unhindered access to Xinjiang and denounced reliable reports about the worsening situation on the ground, instead spinning fanciful tales of happy Uyghurs participating in educational, counter-terror, women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation projects.

“Meanwhile, they are delivering far darker messages to their own people, portraying Uyghurs as ‘malignant tumors,’ comparing their faith to a ‘communicable plague,’ and exhorting the Party faithful to implement a crushing blow, telling them ‘you can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one-by-one; you need to spray chemicals to kill them all,’” he said. 

Pompeo said “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state” and called on “all appropriate multilateral and relevant juridical bodies, to join the United States in our effort to promote accountability for those responsible for these atrocities.”

He directed the State Department to continue to investigate the “ongoing atrocities,” but the designation of a genocide and hard words come just as power is changing hands in Washington. 

That leaves the next move up to the Biden administration and a Democrat-led Congress, which is also going to be busy ramping up the COVID-19 vaccine program, stimulating the economy, resetting a set of policies — from immigration to mask mandates — and carrying through on a Senate trial following Trump’s second impeachment in as many years. 

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