Chinese dissident targets Apple, Nike, others after report says they lobbied to weaken forced labor bill

FAN Editor

A protester outside the White House urges the United States to take action to stop the oppression of the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples, on August 14, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A Chinese dissident has targeted three American corporations after a report alleged that they lobbied the U.S. Congress to weaken a bill banning imports made using forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province.

Citing unnamed congressional staffers and lobbying records, the New York Times on Sunday reported that the bill, known as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, has come under pressure from multinational companies including Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola, as well as business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The bill is designed to crack down on alleged human rights abuses against Muslim minority groups in China’s far west. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018 accused China of detaining at least 1 million Uighur and Turkic people in “so-called counter-extremism” camps that engage in “political and cultural indoctrination.”

Strong denial from China

In a statement to CNBC, China’s embassy in the United States denied that it uses forced labor.

“Some US politicians have concocted disinformation of so-called ‘forced labor’ in order to restrict and oppress relevant parties and enterprises in China as well as contain China’s development,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

“The US practice violates the international trade rules and market economy principles, destroys the global industrial chains and supply chains, and damages the interests of enterprises and consumers in various countries, including the United States,” said the statement, which added that, “All ethnic groups in Xinjiang choose their occupations according to their own will and sign “labor contracts” of their own volition in accordance with law on the basis of equality.”

Bi-partisan support

The forced labor bill gained bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, passing in the House by a vote of 406 to 3, but lobbyists have reportedly sought to water down its requirements, citing concerns that they could disrupt supply chains in China. The bill has not yet passed the U.S. Senate but has sufficient backing to do so, the New York Times reported.

Exiled Chinese dissident Badiucao, who in September was awarded the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, took to his 74,000 Twitter followers on Thursday to launch a series of satirical images targeting Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola for their alleged efforts to weaken the bill.

Speaking to CNBC via telephone from Australia on Thursday, Badiucao, who goes by a pseudonym, said he hopes the campaign will raise awareness of the persecution of Uighurs and encourage consumers to learn more about the brands they buy from.

“It is extremely disappointing to see those big corporations trying to block it with the lobbying action they are doing. I think this is really despicable and not acceptable,” Badiucao said.

“Ultimately, the customers will decide the reaction of the company, as they are only doing this to meet our desire, so the power is still within the consumer,” he said.

Nike, Coca-Cola respond

Nike in a statement to CNBC on Thursday denied lobbying for changes to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act or any other forced labor legislation, saying it has “long prioritized constructive discussions on issues of respecting human rights” with members of Congress. The company said it doesn’t source products from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and its contract suppliers don’t procure textiles there.

Coca-Cola said it prohibits any type of forced labor in its supply chain and uses independent, third-party audits to enforce its guidelines. A facility in Xinjiang that supplies sugar to a local bottling operation “successfully completed an audit in 2019,” the company said Thursday.

Coca-Cola added that it does not import goods from that facility, called COFCO Tunhe, or the region of Xinjiang into the United States.

Apple, which was also targeted by dissident artist Badiucao, did not immediately respond to CNBC requests for comment.

‘Information black hole’

One of Badiucao’s satirical images tries to draw a contrast with Nike’s endorsement of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s “take a knee” initiative. The Apple image mimics the company’s iPhone advertising, but changes the product name to “iChain.”

Badiucao suggested that corporations generally are able to “exploit this information black hole created by the Chinese government,” with consumers often unaware of events on the ground owing to the government’s control on information from the region.

A Nike Ad featuring football player Colin Kaepernick is on display September 8, 2018 in New York City.

Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

On Wednesday, the U.S. government issued a ban on cotton and cotton products from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of China’s largest producers.

Badiucao’s collection also takes aim at apparel brand Zara, owned by Spain’s Inditex, and Japan’s Muji, alleging the presence of Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains. Clothing brands around the world have been accused by human rights groups of having links to cotton picked in Xinjiang camps.

Inditex said it takes a “zero-tolerance” approach toward forced labor and has policies in place to ensure that it doesn’t take place anywhere in its supply chain.

“We are aware of a number of such reports alleging social and labor malpractice in various supply chains among Uyghurs in Xinjiang (China) as well as in other regions, which are highly concerning,” the company said in a statement.

“Following an internal investigation,” the company said, “we can confirm that Inditex does not have commercial relations with any factory in Xinjiang.”

Muji said it does not tolerate any form of forced labor or human trafficking in its supply chains, and an independent third party audit had not found any “material violations” of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“In addition, all of our cottons and yarns have obtained the international organic certification confirmed by a third-party organization, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which requires the compliance with working conditions set by the International Labor Organization (ILO),” a spokesperson told CNBC.

CNBC’s Christine Wang contributed to this report.

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