Some of the largest American companies — including Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola — are actively lobbying the U.S. Congress to weaken legislation that would bar the import of products made with Uighur forced labor in Xinjiang province, China.
These corporations are opposing the bipartisan Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed the House of Representatives 406-3 in September and is now under consideration in the U.S. Senate. The goal of the bill is to ensure “that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States market.”
Since Beijing has so far ignored international condemnation of its treatment of Uighur Muslims, the bill hopes to use economic pain to force Beijing to change its behavior. It also includes a provision to hold publicly traded companies accountable by prosecuting for securities violations the companies found to use forced labor from Xinjiang in their supply chains.
No Excuses for Slave Labor
With the wealth of information available in the internet age, no publicly traded American company’s leaders can pretend ignorance of what’s going on in Xinjiang, China. Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights violations against Uighur Muslims have been widely reported, including its mass incarceration of more than 1 million Uighur Muslim and other minorities (the majority of whom have committed no crimes) and draconian measures against Uighur women that involve subjecting them to frequent pregnancy checks, forcing the use of intrauterine devices and sterilization, and forced abortion on hundreds of thousands.
All Uighurs are also subject to intense political indoctrination whether they are in an internment camp while watching their cultural heritage be bulldozed and erased. What the Uighurs are experiencing is a government-led, systematic ethnic cleansing. Communist China’s cruelty doesn’t stop there. After erasing the Uighurs’s cultural and ethnic identity, destroying their homeland, and separating families and loved ones, the CCP wants to squeeze out the last drop of the economic value of every Uighur.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shows that Uighurs who “survived” internment camps still cannot get their freedom and dignity back. Instead, the Chinese government has facilitated mass transfers of Uighurs from Xinjiang to factories across the country. The report estimates that between 2017 to 2019, at least 80,000 Uighurs have become forced laborers this way:
In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organized Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances … and these transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement.
For whom are these forced laborers working? Factories in the supply chain of “at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors.” The full list of companies includes some of the same American companies that have been using their corporate brands and financial power to push for social justice and other leftist agendas.
Nike, for example, announced a four-year, $40 million commitment in support of organizations focused on social justice, education, and addressing racial inequality in America. Similarly, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook made known that Apple would spend $100 million on a new company initiative dedicated to racial justice. Cook also said publicly that “Forced labor is abhorrent,” and Apple would “terminate a supplier relationship if it were found.”
When presented with evidence, however, Cook and other leaders of big American corporations have turned a blind eye to the injustice millions of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities have to endure. The ASPI report found at least 600 ethnic minority workers from Xinjiang were employed at Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd, a supplier of Nike:
They make Nike shoes during the day. In the evening, they attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem, and receive ‘vocational training’ and ‘patriotic education.’ The curriculum closely mirrors that of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps.’
The same report also found thousands of forced Uighur laborers working for at least a dozen Apple contractors, including O-Film, an Apple contractor Cook visited in 2017. In a now-deleted press release, Cook praised O-Film’s “humane approach towards employees.”
Just as companies such as Apple and Nike continue to lecture Americans on its original sin of slavery, they act as if some forced labor and some form of racial injustice are acceptable if it affects their bottom lines. Their main argument has been that legislation like the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act will upset their Chinese supply chains.
The hypocrisy of these companies is appalling. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones who are morally bankrupt. There is growing evidence that in their quest for short-term profit and market access in China, some American companies have not only pretended they don’t see forced labor but also actively provided the CCP products and technologies that have helped bolster the CCP’s quest to build a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang.
They also use the same technology to keep China’s 1.4 billion people under the CCP’s ever-watchful eyes. The Wall Street Journal reports Seagate Technology PLC, Western Digital Corp., Intel Corp., and Hewlett Packard have all “nurtured, courted and profited from China’s surveillance industry,” and “have provided components, financing, and know-how.” China’s supercomputers, the ultimate tech symbol of the totalitarian state and used by the CCP to process massive amounts of data collected by millions of surveillance cameras, are powered by cutting-edge microchips made by Intel and Nvidia.
According to Paul Mozur, Asia correspondent for The New York Times, Nvidia’s co-founder Jensen Huang regarded Beijing’s push toward a surveillance state as a wonderful business opportunity for his company. Nvidia even bragged that a surveillance system it helped build in Xinjiang “had led to high customer satisfaction.” The Uighurs were unavailable for comment, but would perhaps beg to differ.
The Need to Stand Up to China
Unfortunately, the CCP is not just satisfied with having total control of the Chinese people, but has exported surveillance equipment and technologies to more than 60 nations around the world, aiding other authoritarian states in cracking down on dissenters. In an approach that is part of the CCP’s “digital Silk Road” strategy, the Chinese government often subsidizes the purchase of its repressive technology in exchange for receiving all the data collected, enabling China to exert greater influence and control by making other nations economically and technologically dependent.
Sometimes, however, an American company’s over-eagerness to acquiesce to the CCP’s demands hit close to home. The Wall Street Journal reports when a senior executive at Airbnb raised alarms about the data the company shares with the CCP, including information on Americans traveling in the country, Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk responded, “We’re not here to promote American values.” Tellingly, as Airbnb prepares for its initial public offering, its filings with the Security and Exchange Commission show “China growth and quality” was one of seven metrics that determined bonuses for Airbnb’s top executives in 2019.
Instead, American companies need to realize — quickly — that promoting and defending American values is both good and necessary for their survival. Indeed, Blecharczyk and other American business leaders should remember what made their companies successful in the first place: the free exchange of ideas, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, free markets, and the rule of law.
The CCP has been actively working on undermining American values and is doing everything in its power to replace leading American companies with home-grown ones. As U.S. Attorney Gen. Bill Barr warned American companies last summer, If American corporations “continue to bow to Beijing, they risk undermining both their future competitiveness and prosperity, as well as the classical liberal order that has allowed them to thrive.” For their long-term success and prosperity, American companies ought to take his warning seriously.