China’s Xinjiang cotton growers buoyant as prices rise

A loader moves seed cotton at a cotton ginning mill in Bachu county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in April. [Photo by Cai Zhengle/for China Daily]. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, Aug 6, 2021, China Daily. As cotton plants growing on large areas of farmland owned by a cooperative in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region started to blossom this month, prices for the crop continued to rise. There was also increased confidence among the region’s growers despite an ongoing boycott of Xinjiang cotton initiated by some Western countries over allegations of forced labor, China Daily reported.

Rising prices and increased demand have ended the fears of growers in the region such as Ouyang Deming, chairman of the Demin Cotton Growers Cooperative in Shaya county, about the future of the industry, which is key to Xinjiang’s development.

More than 50 percent of the farmers in the region grow cotton, and over 70 percent of them are members of ethnic minority groups.

China is the world’s second-largest cotton producer and Xinjiang is the nation’s largest producer of the plant.

The region is well-known for its premium, long-fiber cotton, which is popular in domestic and global markets. Xinjiang manufactured 5.2 million metric tons of cotton during the 2020-21 season, accounting for 87 percent of the nation’s total production.

In January, the United States banned imports of all cotton products from Xinjiang, including raw fibers, apparel and textiles, over “forced labor” concerns. Some major global textile and clothing giants, including H&M and Nike, also said they had decided not to source cotton from the region over alleged human rights violations.

After hearing this news, Ouyang, 57, thought it would have a devastating impact on Xinjiang cotton and growers, but he is glad to have been proved wrong.

“The region’s cotton is in high demand this year in domestic and international markets. The boycott has actually been a good advertisement for quality Xinjiang cotton,” Ouyang said.

While production and exports in key cotton-producing countries worldwide, including India, have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, production in Xinjiang remains stable thanks to the region’s effective measures to control the disease, he said.

Chinese consumers’ support for domestic textiles and major clothing brands using Xinjiang cotton has also boosted sales of the region’s cotton products, meaning that manufacturers are willing to source more supplies from the region, Ouyang added.

“The boycott has had little impact on Xinjiang’s cotton market. The US choosing not to use Xinjiang cotton is that country’s loss, it won’t affect our business,” he said.

The cooperative, which has some 1,016 hectares of cotton plantations and is located in Aksu prefecture in southern Xinjiang, is expected to harvest 600 to 700 tons more cotton this year compared with the previous season, which was from the end of October to early November.

The price of Xinjiang lint cotton futures rose to more than 17,000 yuan ($2,630) a ton last month, from 14,000 yuan a year earlier, Ouyang said. “No matter how much effort some Western countries put into slandering Xinjiang cotton, they cannot change the global demand for quality cotton,” he said.

Huang Ping, a cotton grower in Yuepuhu county, Kashgar prefecture, said the only setback for cotton production in Xinjiang this season was bad weather in spring, rather than groundless accusations.

“To secure a stable supply from Xinjiang, many textile companies have already sent representatives to the region to source more cotton. As a grower, all I need to think about is further improving the quality, as quality cotton will always be in hot demand globally,” Huang said.

Zhang Xi’an, deputy director of the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Textiles, said the boycott and export ban on Xinjiang cotton has affected exports of Chinese cotton products to the US, but demand remains strong in other markets.

Although some US buyers have chosen not to work with Chinese companies that use Xinjiang cotton, the export volume of China’s cotton textiles and garments reached $19.7 billion in the first four months of this year, a year-on-year rise of 44 percent, he added.

“Despite the impact of the Xinjiang cotton boycott, demand for Chinese cotton products in the international market is very strong,” Zhang said.

China has stated many times that allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang are fabricated by certain Western countries, including the US, with the aim of cracking down on relevant Chinese parties and companies and curbing China’s development.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said,”The US side created this lie and then took actions based on this lie.”

Groundless accusations

Saderdin Ahat, manager of a cooperative in Shaya with 3,390 members, about 90 percent of whom are Uygurs, said that for cotton growers in Xinjiang, such accusations simply sound like “jokes”. Locals are keen to grow cotton because it is profitable and can provide them with a stable income.

“Also, the mechanization level involved in cotton production can reach more than 95 percent. This year, we will try to harvest all the cotton by machines. Growing cotton is no longer a highly labor-intensive job,” Saderdin said, adding that the cooperative has 10 large seed-planting machines and four drones to spray pesticides.

Many farmers are now using drones to spray pesticides and are operating unmanned seed-planting and cotton-picking machines, Saderdin said. “They are eager to master the latest growing technologies so they can plant more cotton to make more money.”

According to the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), Xinjiang aims for 80 percent of its cotton to be picked by machines to reduce costs and improve efficiency. On some farms, manual cotton picking is still needed when large machines cannot reach crops grown on the perimeters of fields.

In Aksu, the cost of picking cotton manually is about five to seven times that of mechanized picking, Saderdin said.

“Experienced workers can pick 100 kilograms to 160 kg of cotton a day, which means they can earn 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan in the harvest season, which lasts about two months. Rather than being forced to pick cotton, there is heated competition for this work,” Saderdin added.

Outrage voiced

In March, public outrage was expressed in China after international brands such as H&M and Nike chose not to source cotton from Xinjiang, citing allegations of forced labor.

Companies that issued statements on their decision to halt sourcing cotton from the region are members of the Better Cotton Initiative, or BCI, an NGO based in Switzerland.

On March 30 last year, BCI said it would suspend cooperation with licensed farmers in Xinjiang during the 2020-21 cotton season due to the allegations of forced labor.

News of how the BCI decision was reached emerged on Wednesday, when the national security authority revealed details to Global Times of the BCI “investigation” with Verite, a self-proclaimed “independent and nonprofit” civil society organization based in the US.

The investigation was commissioned to a company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, with connections to Verite. No one from Verite responsible for the task went to Xinjiang. The report submitted to BCI, which cited unjustifiable claims from anti-China organizations and reached a predetermined guilty conclusion, was based on material collected online and written under the guidance of Yao Wenjuan, the legal representative of the Shenzhen company, an employee from Verite told Global Times.

Established in 1995, Verite said it “partnered with hundreds of corporations, governments and NGOs to highlight labor rights violations in supply chains”. In 2006, the company sent Yao, its Chinese employee, to set up a workshop in Shenzhen, which was later registered as a company in Verite’s name and dealt with the organization’s businesses in China, according to the national security authority.

BCI headquarters invited Verite to join the investigation into whether forced labor was being used in cotton-related industries in Xinjiang. A report titled “Research on Forced Labor in Cotton Production in China with a Specific Focus on Xinjiang” was produced by the team from the Shenzhen company.

The national security authority said it found no mention in the Shenzhen company’s financial reimbursement records of any employee going to Xinjiang to conduct a field survey for the BCI project.

An employee from the company, who requested anonymity, told Global Times she was assigned to the project in February last year and asked to “collect” evidence of “forced labor” in Xinjiang.

Yao provided a large amount of “materials” for staff members to refer to, including a report by anti-China “scholar” Adrian Zenz on claims of forced labor in Xinjiang, the employee said.

The employee and another colleague found no evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. In May last year, the employee handed the first draft of the report to Yao, which “she (Yao) was not satisfied with”. Yao wrote in an email that she felt it was “hard to submit it after comparing ours with the report written by our colleagues in the US.”

The employees were asked to revise the report. Although no evidence of child labor was found in Xinjiang’s cotton production industry, Yao insisted on including in the report “there is a very low possibility that students were organized on a large scale to pick cotton, but there are still risks for underaged children in a family taken on for cotton-picking after school or on weekends”, the employees said.

On Aug 2 last year, Yao showed the two colleagues the final report put together by the Verite headquarters and reviewed by BCI. It only gave Yao’s viewpoints.

Another Verite China employee said there are many presumptions of guilt in the report. For example, the version given to the headquarters states, “Existing research indicates the possibility of coercion by local government officials of poor rural laborers to take part in cotton picking under the poverty alleviation program.”

BCI headquarters appeared to be satisfied with use of the word “coercion” to describe the poverty alleviation program. On July 10 last year, a BCI reviewer stated, “Thanks, this is typically the sort of analysis which adds value,” the employee said.

Companies targeted

In addition to banning imports of Xinjiang cotton products and producing reports related to the region, the US also targeted Xinjiang cotton and textile companies by putting them on its Entity List, which restricts companies’ exports and trade.

Companies placed on the list are barred from trading with the US. For textile companies specializing in US orders, this means losing high-profile clients and laying off employees over groundless accusations.

Some companies, including the Esquel Group, which is based in Hong Kong and is one of the world’s biggest shirt-makers, have been forced to take legal action to defend their rights and seek compensation.

The company’s branch in Changji city, Xinjiang, was added to the US Entity List in July last year after being accused of using forced labor, which the company denies.

On July 6, Esquel Group filed a motion for a preliminary injunction with the US District Court for the District of Columbia in its lawsuit against the US Department of Commerce. The motion sought to put an immediate end to the daily commercial and reputational harm to Esquel Group by removing Changji Esquel from the Entity List.

Esquel chairman and CEO Marjorie Yang said, “The use of forced labor or coercive practices is completely contrary to our founding principles and the business we have operated for more than 40 years.”

The group said in a statement that Changji Esquel was added to the Entity List without notice and with no supporting evidence, causing incalculable reputational and economic harm.

Despite continued outreach and the sharing of numerous business documents with the Department of Commerce’s End-User Review Committee since September, the group had received no meaningful response or evidence from the US government that would support its inclusion on the Entity List, according to the statement.

On Tuesday, the End-User Review Committee, a US inter-agency body, voted to remove Changji Esquel from the Entity List under certain conditions, according to a joint motion filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The group and the US government are in discussions over the conditions.

He Zhipeng, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Jilin University, said human rights are still often used as excuses and even weapons during global economic and political competition. The boycott of Xinjiang cotton and the imposition of sanctions on cotton and textile companies from the region were cited by He as perfect examples.

Ouyang, from the cooperative in Shaya, said rumors of alleged forced labor in Xinjiang could easily be dismissed if those who made them visited the region’s cotton farms.

“People who have doubts are more than welcome to have full access to visit our cooperative and talk to the members freely. I will also answer all their questions without withholding any information. People should respect facts, rather than believing lies,” Ouyang added.

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