Should we boycott ‘made in China’?

The human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese state are numerous, and many are linked to global corporations and products sold around the world. Increasingly people are asking should we boycott ‘made in China’?

In this article, Clare Carlile explores the question through the cases of China’s abuses in Tibet, Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

What is the current situation?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has perpetrated multiple human rights abuses since it came to power in 1949.

It operates a mass surveillance state, with the “silencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists, and restrictions on the internet” across the country.

Since it annexed Tibet in 1951, it has denied religious, cultural and political freedoms to those within the region, and perpetrated the “forced resettlement of the Nomadic people”, destroying their way of life.

In recent years, it has also curtailed political and civic freedoms in Hong Kong, effectively ending the region’s autonomy. Multiple protestors have been arrested, and many pro-democracy activists and candidates have been rounded up and charged under new security laws which could mean a lifetime in prison for anyone ‘undermining’ the region’s ‘unity with China’. In March, the CCP amended Hong Kong’s constitution, almost halving the city’s proportion of directly elected representatives, and requiring all candidates to be vetted for party loyalty.

Since at least 2017, the Chinese state has also implemented a crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim and other ethnic minority populations in the northwest of mainland China. Between 1 and 1.8 million Uyghurs are believed to have been held in ‘re-education camps’ - used to try and strip Uyghurs of their cultural and religious identity.

Those who have fled the region say they faced prison-like conditions and surveillance, and were forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP, renounce Islam, and learn Mandarin. Some say they were subjected to torture. Women say they experienced sexual abuse, with some forced to undergo abortions or have contraceptive devices implanted against their will.

Many say that China’s behaviour in the Uyghur Region amounts to crimes against humanity or genocide. In March, an independent report from the US-based thinktank Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy found that the CCP had breached every single article of the UN genocide convention, showing “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

Workers’ rights

For years, consumers have also been concerned about workers’ rights in the country.

From the 1970s, China saw enormous economic growth, termed by many as an ‘economic miracle’. Millions were alleviated from poverty. But China’s entry into the global economy was also linked with the growing exploitation of workers.

In 2011, Chak Khan Chan and Zhaiwen Peng wrote in an academic paper, “As a result of rapid economic growth and integration into the global economy, China has become the world’s biggest sweatshop.”

Workers report excessive overtime, unsafe conditions and sexual harassment (sources: China Labor Watch report, Guardian and Guardian). Minimum wages are not always paid and often do not cover the cost of living. Migrant workers are severely exploited. Labour laws frequently go unenforced. Workers facing these abuses are often unable to speak out because independent labour unions are outlawed and social activists face harsh crackdowns.

This economic system - in part fuelled by global corporations and consumer demand - is intricately linked with some of the state’s most extreme abuses, from aggressive resource extraction in Tibet to forced labour in the Uyghur Region.

Made in China boycott
Made in China boycott

Complicit companies?

State controlled companies

Thousands of companies are likely to be linked to China’s abuses in some way.

All companies in China are potentially linked to the state, but it is almost impossible to tell what connections any given company actually has.

While some companies - like the Bank of China, the State Grid and China National Petroleum are directly owned by the state - many sit in a grey area where it is unclear what role the state actually plays.

Over recent years, new laws in China and growing state investments in private companies have increasingly blurred the line between state and private enterprise. All companies and individuals must help “to maintain national security” and “support and cooperate in national intelligence work”, under Chinese law. In 2016, it was reported that 68% of China’s private companies and 70% of foreign companies had a party body. Walmart has had party cells in its companies in China since 2006, and L’Oreal, Walt Disney and Dow Chemicals all have party committees.

The issue came under scrutiny in 2020, when countries including the USA and the UK banned Huawei from their 5G networks, following claims by the US that Huawei could be used by the Chinese state to spy on or disrupt other countries.

There was in fact some basis of the USA’s claim. Had Huawei controlled the tech behind the 5G network, it could theoretically have spied or disrupted communication in the case of a global dispute. For example, it could theoretically have shut a UK power station down. However, Huawei stated that it had never been asked to spy and "would categorically refuse to comply" if a request were made. When the US was pushed to publish evidence that Huawei had facilitated spying, it simply pointed to Chinese law.

It is unclear what role the state would actually play, and this grey area allows much room for political manoeuvering by a country like the US. The ban on Huawei just happened to coincide with an escalating trade dispute between China and the USA. While states too often turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, they are also often strategic on when they choose to weigh in.

Profiting from oppression

Companies that decide to operate in an oppressive regime provide funds and legitimacy to it. They may also benefit from the oppressive conditions, such as harsh labour conditions, lax environmental regulations and an economic environment that enables corruption and tax avoidance.

Foxconn is the largest single employer in mainland China, with as many employees as the entire population of Estonia. It supplies companies including Apple and Tesla.

Many of Foxconn’s factories have been linked to ‘student internships’, where students are forced to work in factories in order to receive their qualifications. In 2010, Foxconn came to international attention after 18 suicide attempts were reported at its factories in the space of just one year.

Foxconn’s dominance has been enabled not only by its foreign customers, but also the support of the Chinese state. Domestic policies ensured that wages remained low throughout the early 2000s. In some states, its rent and tax has been waived. Local governments have even supported recruitment to its factories.

Foxconn has clearly benefited from the poor conditions enabled by an oppressive regime. However, this is not unique to China. Countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Myanmar are notorious for their poor working conditions and are also governed by oppressive states. Ethical Consumer has a list of 22 oppressive regimes globally, and generally marks companies down for operations in any of them.

Complicit in abuse

Clearly, the relationship between corporations and systemic human and workers’ rights issues is complex and not contained to one country. But in the case of China many companies are also much more directly involved in the state’s abuses.

In the Uyghur Region, the Chinese state is using forced labour as part of its system of control. Over half a million Uyghur workers have been forced to act as cotton pickers, after being released from the ‘re-education camps’.

The Uyghur Region produces around 20% of the world’s cotton, and studies therefore suggest that around 1 in 5 garments around the world are linked to this forced labour.

Civil society experts say that if companies are sourcing cotton from the region, there is no way they can be sure it is not complicit. The End Uyghur Forced Labour Coalition says “almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated.”

Cotton growing in field

More than just cotton

But it is not only companies selling cotton products that may be linked. Thousands of Uyghurs are also being transferred to factories across China, manufacturing everything from apparel to tech. The workers, once given a new role, cannot leave, are under constant surveillance, and must continue “ideological training” to abandon their religion and culture.

Amazon, Apple, Adidas, Nike, H&M and Uniqlo are amongst 83 companies already linked to Uyghur forced labour in their factory supply chains.

Recently, the Chinese state has begun ‘exporting’ the model to other regions: in the first seven months of 2020, 500,000 Tibetans - 15% of the population - were said to have been moved off their land and into military-style facilities where they were trained as factory workers. Almost 50,000 Tibetans were transferred to jobs within Tibet, and thousands were sent to other regions to work in industries such as textile manufacturing and construction. It is not yet known which companies are linked to these abuses.

Aggressive resource extraction

Gonpo Dhundup from Tibetan Youth Congress says that it is not only Tibetan forced labour from which companies benefit: “China is extracting all the minerals, all the resources for their products” from the region.

Mining in Tibet is intricately linked to state repression. Nomadic communities are often forcibly resettled to make way for mines, and authorities “fail to redress popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces.”

Lithium, a key element in batteries, is one of the resources exported from Tibet to the rest of China. Its extraction has “serious ecological impacts” as well as on human rights. In 2016, for example, a well documented toxic chemical leak from a lithium mine in Tibet destroyed the local area.

The Chinese company BYD, one of the largest manufacturers of electric vehicles and batteries in the world, is heavily involved in lithium extraction in the region and has been given exclusive rights to lithium extraction from Tibet’s Chabyer Tsaka Lake by the local authorities. The Free Tibet campaign says that the company’s expansion has been “facilitated by a government which has no legitimacy for Tibetans and whose right to manage the exploitation of Tibetan resources is disputed.”

BYD has supplied buses to Transport for London, and in recent years it has entered talks or brokered agreements with Toyota, Ford, VW Audi and Jaguar Landrover. Berkshire Hathaway, owner of Brooks Sports and Duracell brands, owns a 8.25% share in the company.

Resource extraction quarry trucks Tibet
Resource extraction in Tibet for export to mainland China. Image courtesy of Free Tibet

So, should we boycott ‘made in China’?

Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) suggests that consumers must hold the state to account.

“As global citizens, it’s our responsibility to have a better future: we all have a responsibility to make China accountable,” Gonpo Dhundup from TYC argues.

TYC has had an active boycott call against ‘made in China’ since 1991, highlighting the country’s atrocities in Tibet, as well as its expansionist policy into India and more recently its cover up of the coronavirus crisis. Gonpo says that a boycott is possible, pointing to the sheer number of alternative products now available globally.

The question is nonetheless complex, with ‘made in China’ only covering a minute proportion of China’s involvement in the global economy. The ‘made in’ label indicates only the final country of manufacture, rather than the origin of any resources or pre-assembly manufacturing.

Gonpo says that the Tibetan Youth Congress is also calling for companies to avoid Chinese materials and parts further up in their supply chains. “There are lots of ways for companies to stop operating in or sourcing from China”, Gonpo says, pointing to India where exports from China declined 13% in 2020, following tensions between the two countries. However, he also acknowledges that the shift often relies on developing domestic industries, requiring government support.

A blunt tool?

Others though suggest that a consumer boycott of all Chinese products would not resolve the issues.

“A boycott is a very blunt tool,” points out Dominique Muller from Labour Behind the Label, which is a member of the End Uyghur Forced Labour Coalition.

“Boycotts can actually make the situation worse” Chloe Cranston from Anti-Slavery International, which is also a member of the Coalition, agrees. She explains that boycotts can exacerbate poor working and living conditions, poverty and even forced labour.

Many also suggest that a whole-country boycott would not even be a useful bargaining tool. China is unlikely to engage with a boycott or any other campaign, given its genocidal intentions. However, companies can drive significant change: while most would be unlikely to exit China, they are more likely to be open to targeted demands.

Dominique also expresses concerns that a whole-country boycott could just push the problems elsewhere. The persecution of Tibetan and Uyghur peoples is clearly ethnically-motivated and deeply linked to the Chinese state. But other labour rights issues are fuelled by globalisation and global corporations as well as the failure of governments. A whole country boycott might just incentivise a company to move their custom abroad, to a country like Sri Lanka, where the average factory wage is $0.50 an hour.

“We don’t want brands to simply hop round the globe without taking responsibility for their supply chains.”

Neo-imperialist control?

Clearly, the decision whether to boycott is complex, and there is a thin line between those in solidarity and ones that exert neo-imperialist control. Listening to those affected is therefore essential.

Whole-country boycotts are therefore in fact rare. The BDS Movement says that it “calls for a boycott of Israel’s entire regime of oppression, including all of the Israeli companies and institutions that are involved in its violations of international law.” It emphasises that “BDS does not target identity,” but that “it strictly targets companies and institutions based on complicity in denying Palestinian rights.” In the case of the South Africa apartheid boycott (1959-1993), all international companies doing business in the country were targeted, as they were all considered to be complicit in the ongoing apartheid.

Crucially, both boycotts were called by those impacted by the state in question, rather than imposed by consumers or civil society abroad.

What should companies do?

Although not calling for a boycott of China overall, multiple organisations are calling instead on companies to exit the Uyghur Region. “Groups representing the victims and survivors have called companies to get out,” Chloe Cranster, from Anti-Slavery International explains. The organisation is amongst the coalition backing the call.

“If you realise there’s forced labour in your supply chain, cut the link,” Zumretay Arkin from the World Uyghur Congress says. In the current context, she agrees with Chloe that this means cutting ties with any supplier involved in cotton production in the Uyghur Region, accepting subsidies from the government in the region or using Uyghur workers anywhere else in China.

It is impossible to otherwise ensure that individual suppliers are not using forced labour, Zumretay explains. “The Uyghur people are not free. The crackdown is too severe for people to speak out freely.” Auditors would be in danger if they spoke out, and four major auditing firms have recently exited the region.

Zumretay says that she is often asked whether cutting off these suppliers will make the situation for the Uyghur workers worse. “No, they’re not there by choice, they’re there by coercion… These brands shouldn’t be seeing these workers as normal workers. They are probably coerced to do this.” Chloe agrees that it’s likewise "not a context where we see the risk that brands exiting the Region would make the situation worse."

The answer, Dominique from Labour Behind the Label says, is “more transparency, mapping, due diligence”, as well as cutting ties with complicit suppliers. Brands should also be remediating those affected where abuses are found, she says. “If it was just a boycott, it’s not resolving the problem.”

How are companies responding?

Some companies are already taking action. Seven companies including ASOS, Marks & Spencer and TFG Limited (owner of Hobbs, Phase Eight and Whistles brands) had signed the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition’s Call to Action, committing to the steps outlined above, at the time of writing.

But other brands appear to be doubling down on the issue.

In February, the USA passed a bill banning imports from the Uyghur Region unless certified not to be linked with forced labour. Nike, Coca-Cola and Apple were all found to have lobbied on earlier versions of the bill, calling for it to be watered down. All three companies have also previously been named over believed links to Uyghur forced labour.  

In March, several brands pulled statements condemning Uyghur forced labour, in response to threats from the Chinese state. The CCP launched boycott calls against companies taking action on the issue. H&M - which had issued a statement distancing itself from cotton made in the Uyghur Region - saw its brand pulled from major Chinese online fashion stores, lost endorsements from Chinese celebrities, and was even banned as a destination on one of China’s biggest taxi apps.

Fearing similar retaliation, the campaign group End #ForcedLabourFashion Now says, “Inditex, the parent company of ZARA, has responded by removing its policy on forced labor from its own website. Inditex’s behaviour emboldens the Chinese government in its crimes against humanity in the Uyghur Region.” The group has also called out PVH (owners of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), Muji, Hugo Boss, Fila, Asics and VF (owners of The North Face, Timberland and Vans) for either removing their forced labour or Uyghur statements or for promoting the use of cotton from the Uyghur Region.

Clearly many brands still have a long way to go in tackling the issue.

What should consumers do?

Some consumers may choose to follow the Tibetan Youth Congress’ boycott call.

For others, campaign groups say there are still many actions to take, as both citizen and consumer.

  1. Zumretay says that we should start by “educating yourself on the widespread use of forced labour in global supply chains.” Great websites for this include: Anti-Slavery International, Labour Behind the Label, Clean Clothes Campaign, End Uyghur Forced Labour and International Tibet Network, and Free Tibet.
  2. Write to companies, asking, ‘do you know where your cotton comes from?’, ‘can you tell me you know where your cotton comes from?’, and asking them to join the End Uyghur Forced Labour Call to Action,” she says.
  3. You can also write to companies that might be benefitting from forced labour and aggressive resource extraction in Tibet. By asking whether they are aware of the situation in Tibet and what they are doing to address it, consumers can make sure that the abuses are on companies’ agendas.
  4. Call on your MPs to make sure they know about this,” Zumretay says. “Yes, they’re elected officials but they don’t always know about everything. Call for an official hearing for brands to give evidence that they’re not involved in forced labour.”
  5. There are multiple petitions and actions online, which can be found through the End Uyghur Forced Labour, International Tibet Network and other websites. Here are just a few:
  • Call on the Chinese government to end Uyghur forced labour (Freedom United petition)
  • Petition the UK government to ban the import of cotton from the Uyghur region (38 Degrees petition)
  • Urge 83 companies complicit in Uyghur oppression to end their support (Change petition)
  • Call on Nike, Adidas, Puma and North Face to stop using Uyghur forced labour (Sum of Us petition)
  • Send a Tweet from the Clean Clothes Campaign, calling on Zara to end ties (Clean Clothes tweet)

Global action

The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) calls for a Global Movement to Boycott Made in China, "to raise awareness about the atrocities committed by the Communist Party of China." It outlines four key reasons for the call. These are:

  1. Human rights abuses: "When we buy good manufactured in Communist China, we are innocently contributing to a system that imprisons and oppresses anyone who speaks out".
  2. Supporting China's military build up: "Every time a consumer buys a product that is 'Made in China' that money helps finance what is essentially the most rapid build up of an expansionist and aggressive totalitarian regime. In fact, thousands of factories and sweatshops are directly owned and operated by the CCP military."
  3. Outbreak of Coronavirus: "China hid facts, destroyed evidence and thus deprived the international community of crucial information during the critical initial period."
  4. Intrusion of Chinese troops into India e.g. in the Galwan Valley, which resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers.

Previous boycott calls from Tibetan civil society organisations have protested against the conditions in which some Chinese products are manufactured, "by the millions of prisoners in China's forced labour camps."