The Real Meaning of ‘Made in China’ and the People Who Suffer the Most

Uyghur forced labor is integral to the supply chains of America’s favorite fashions, cars, and grocery store goods.

Mary Julia Koch/The New York Sun
'Disrupting Uyghur Genocide' at New York City. Mary Julia Koch/The New York Sun

The crusading son of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Elisha Wiesel, is on a mission to disrupt the Uyghur genocide in Communist China and the consumer supply chains that are cashing in on it.

Mr. Wiesel wants Congress to limit imports produced using Uyghur forced labor, impose sanctions, and enforce travel bans on Xinjiang officials responsible for the largest detention of an ethno-religious minority since World War II.

“We need to reach a broader audience and communicate the urgency of the issue at hand,” Mr. Wiesel tells the Sun. “I am going to do so at every opportunity I can — whether it’s speaking with members of government, corporations, or private citizens.”

At least 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic majority people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been detained since 2017. “We need to hold the Chinese government accountable,” Mr. Wiesel says. “The US and others need to do everything in their power to draw attention to the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang.” 

American consumers also have a role to play, he says. Tesla cars, Nike shoes, and the selfie camera on the iPhone are just a few of the household goods allegedly tied to forced labor in China. Through loopholes and little oversight, 17 or more global industries are cashing in on what Beijing calls “re-education” — or what the American State Department calls genocide. 

“As American consumers, we need to start putting pressure on US companies that are using Uyghur slave labor to produce their products,” Mr. Wiesel says. “Corporations across a multitude of industries, including apparel, automotives, and agriculture, are currently taking advantage of forced labor. We need to hold them accountable.”

“Made in China” often means made by Uyghurs. At the largest-ever conference dedicated to “Disrupting Uyghur Genocide” at New York City in April, hosted by the Elie Wiesel Foundation, the World Uyghur Congress, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a can of tomatoes was displayed as a symbol that products advertised as “genuine Italian” are actually “grown 5,900 kilometers away in Xinjiang.”

American retail giants like Walmart and Amazon sell tomato products produced by Uyghurs laboring for the Chinese company, Hebei Tomato Industry. Those tomatoes are about 70 percent cheaper than those from America. That’s what the Wiesel Foundation calls “prison-to-table dining.”

Mary Julia Koch/The New York Sun. The ‘Disrupting Uyghur Genocide’ at New York City.

The Sun reached out to more than a dozen companies whose supply chains have been accused of having close ties to the Xinjiang government. That includes auto manufacturers Tesla, General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagen, since much of the coal used to produce the aluminum is mined by Uyghurs threatened into working at coal mines.

Tesla has said in annual reports that it will “not knowingly accept products or services from suppliers that include forced labor or human trafficking in any form.” Yet a Washington Post analysis of corporate records and Chinese media reports found in September that Tesla’s network of suppliers includes firms that appear to undermine an American ban on products made in Xinjiang.

The Sun also inquired to Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Walmart, Amazon, Etsy, Instacart, Apple, and Nike about this matter. The companies either declined to comment on the matter or did not respond. The one company that did provide a comment is drone-maker DJI, whose supply chain has been accused of having close ties to the Xinjiang government. 

“We categorically refute any accusations of involvement in human rights abuses,” DJI’s press team tells the Sun. “DJI has not engaged in any activities, including sales distribution and product development, that violate or abuse human rights. There is no substantiated evidence that DJI has engaged in any human rights violations.

“Like other manufacturers, we do not have control over how our products are used as they are available off-the-shelf. However, we have demonstrated — through years of investments in product safety and security initiatives — that our products are developed for peaceful and civilian use only,” the company says.

Another leading company that has spoken out about the issue is Nike. When it was accused by a watchdog group last July of being the primary customer of a shoe manufacturing company that employs Uyghur laborers, Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd., it denied the allegations. The company said in a statement that it “does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.” 

When it comes to fashion brands, however, cotton is a seemingly innocuous culprit. More than one-fifth of the world’s supply is produced in Xinjiang, according to the advocacy project, Save Uyghur. Laborers in cotton fields are paid at most 15 cents a day, with most paid nothing at all. Prominent fashion brands are implicated, according to a display of a pair of jumpsuits, splattered with names like the Spanish fast-fashion company, Zara.

Zara made a statement in 2020 pledging not to use “Xinjiang cotton,” but has since retracted that vow following backlash in the Chinese market. Other brands, like the Japanese household and consumer goods retailer, Muji, have said they have no intention of ending sourcing from the region.

Brands risk commercial and reputational losses if they leave China. Meanwhile, business executives seeking clarity on their supply chains there, the New York Times reported in 2022, have been met with an “escalation of secrecy.”

For Mr. Wiesel, combating the Uyghur crisis ultimately requires Congress to step up. In 2021, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to limit imports produced using forced labor in China. Apple, for one, subsequently cut ties with the company manufacturing its selfie-camera technology, O-Film, which relied on Uyghur labor. 

Mr. Wiesel urges lawmakers to also support the Uyghur Policy Act, which is stalling in the Senate after passing the House on February 15. It provides a framework for the State Department to access detention facilities and secure the release of Uyghurs, among other steps. 

Another policy on the table is the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, which would designate certain residents of the Xinjiang region in China “prioritized refugees of special humanitarian concern.” 

Mr. Wiesel sees the movement of exposing Uyghur genocide as an extension of the human rights work pioneered by his father, Elie, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. 

“My father once said that the worst thing about the Holocaust was that the Nazis got away with it,” he tells the Sun. “If we are committed to never again, then we need to draw the line and do whatever we can, no matter how out of reach the goal may seem — we can’t ignore it.”

The New York Sun

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