In the summer of 1988, I was the subject of great racial curiosity.
I was in the middle of the most land locked city on earth. The capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, holds a population of over one million people.
My impression then was that none of those one million people had ever seen a westerner before – certainly not a six-foot-three-inch white man who was then all of 165 pounds dripping wet.
Eyes followed me everywhere I walked. They seemed particularly interested in my, then voluminous, blond hair.
I was with a group of graduates, students and teachers from Oklahoma Baptist University. We spent a couple of months that summer teaching English at Xinjiang University.
Xinjiang – which means “new frontier” in Chinese – is the far northwest province of China. Its populace is roughly half Uyghur, a predominantly Muslim people.
It was an educational experience for all involved. Part of that education involved learning about geo-political ethnic strategies.
The university had two leaders – one Uyghur and one Chinese. We were lectured by Chinese officials about how the government was bringing modernity to this “autonomous” region by bringing together both Uyghur and Chinese cultures in a harmonious relationship.
The picture painted was that of two cultural streams gently flowing together with wise communist leadership providing guidance to the confluence.
Likely at the time, these expressions of respect for the Uyghur people represented sincerely delivered messages from a Chinese government still learning to open itself to the western world.
But much, in addition to my hair, has changed since 1988. China is no longer an insecure or insular place.
And any pretense of allowing indigenous Uyghur leadership has vanished. In fact, about one million Uyghur people have been swept into concentration camps and forced labor.
On March 7, I attended a hearing of the Unites States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the situation in China.
The USCIRF hearing (entitled: “Hearing on A Religious Minority Enslaved: Addressing the Complicity of U.S. Companies in Uyghur Forced Labor”) highlighted experts testifying about the realities on the ground in northwest China.
Adrian Zenz, a dogged German academic who has so tirelessly worked to bring China’s abuses to light that China has sued him, testified at the hearing.
“While the parents are being herded into full-time work, their children are put into full-time education and training settings. This includes children below preschool age (infants and toddlers), so that ethnic minority women are being ‘liberated’ and ‘freed’ to engage in full-time wage labor,” he said.
“Notably, both factory and educational settings are essentially state-controlled environments that facilitate ongoing political indoctrination while barring religious practices.”
On March 12, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the United States condemned China’s abuse of ethnic and religious minorities.
Mark Cassayre, U.S. charge d’affaires, told the U.N. Human Rights Council: “We condemn China’s abuse of members of ethnic and religious minority groups including crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang.”
Many U.S. companies with supply chains in China are inevitably complicit in Uyghur forced labor.
Following the U.S. Department of State’s determination that the atrocities in Xinjiang constitute genocide and crimes against humanity, the need for companies and consumers to ensure we aren’t contributing to the camps is essential.
There was clear consensus at the USCIRF hearing that because of the complexity of the supply chain of things like apparel, footwear and other related industries, it was very difficult for companies to make a clean audit of their process.
There is some good news, however.
The US has recently banned all cotton imports from Xinjiang.
Reports are that this is causing real pain in China, but as the editorial board of The Washington Post has just written: more needs to be done.
“The response of the United States and other democracies has not been nearly equal to the immense scale of the crimes against the Uyghurs,” the board stated.
The other bit of good news is that on Monday, March 22, the United States joined Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom in committing to sanctions against Chinese officials, and they released a quite poignant statement.
“The evidence, including from the Chinese Government’s own documents, satellite imagery, and eyewitness testimony is overwhelming,” the joint statement said. “China’s extensive program of repression includes severe restrictions on religious freedoms, the use of forced labor, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilizations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage.”
I will admit that I used to make light of those who sought to avoid buying things “made in China.” My assumption was that xenophobia played a role and that, in this globalized world, such efforts were bound to fail.
But this current context has nothing to do with racism against the Chinese people and it has everything to do with standing up for human rights and religious freedom for the Chinese people.
Any labor that is forced is a form of slavery. And any severe repression of religion in the name of liberation and security should be countered by every means possible.
Cheap clothes for overstuffed American closets shouldn’t be paid for by someone’s freedom.
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.