For the hundreds of Uyghur girls walking through the factory's gates, it may not be a Xinjiang camp -- but it's a prison just the same. The barbed wire, the cameras, the heavy police presence, they're all a sickening reminder that the nightmare they've been living isn't over. It's just changed. Now, hunched over tables, stitching Nike's logo on endless pairs of shoes, they wonder which is worse: "reeducation" lessons or forced labor.
They come in groups of 50, usually by train from the network of camps in the west. Chinese officials tell them they've "graduated" from their detention and been given jobs. But what they aren't given, the Washington Post warns, is a choice. Shipped to factories around the country, they're sentenced to work as slaves for some of America's most recognizable brands. "Everyone knows they didn't come here of their own free will," one of the vendors tells the Post's Anna Fifield in Laixi. "They were brought here. The Uyghurs had to come because they didn't have an option. The government sent them here."
Conscious of the military-style guards, Anna raised a camera to her face and snapped a shot of the factory's high walls with razor-sharp fencing. "There is a special police station equipped with facial-recognition cameras and other high-tech surveillance," she explains, "that workers must pass through when they enter and exit the facility." The locals she talked to believe that it's run by the tightest of security standards. And why not? The secret they're keeping -- that persecuted religious minorities are being "bought and sold" by local governments to work for Nike, Apple, and others -- would implicate American companies in one of the worst human rights atrocities in the world.
As she interviews local townspeople, a horrifying picture of what looks like a modern slave trade starts to emerge. And a lucrative one at that. The Chinese, Fifield discovers, get "a sum of money for each Uyghur head." "Officials and private brokers receive money for every Uyghur person they manage to transfer," Vicky Lu, one of the leading experts on the story, confirms. "The recipient companies receive a cash inducement for every Uyghur they take." Worse, Lu's report warns, "At these factories, they continue to undergo... [forced] indoctrination programs."
Thousands of miles away in America, companies like Nike are scrambling to explain away their involvement in China's forced labor program. Spokeswoman Sandra Carreon-John tried to wash the brand's hands of any wrongdoing by insisting that suppliers are "strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded, or indentured labor". But the reality is, Nike's known about the situation since at least last year, when the Wall Street Journal started sounding the alarm that U.S. businesses were being implicated in the Uyghur crackdown.
While companies like Abercrombie raced to cut ties with the suppliers in question, Nike, Gap, Apple, Samsung, and others stood pat, hoping the story would die down. Now that it hasn't, Nike's Carreon-John is crossing her fingers people will believe the lie that the company "respect[s] human rights in our extended value chain, and we always strive to conduct business ethically and responsibly. We are committed to upholding international labor standards globally."
Of course, the rub for American customers is that Nike has spent the last several years parading around the U.S. as some sort of social justice warrior. We were supposed to believe that they cared about injustice and inequality. And yet all this time, the retail giant that was crusading against police brutality and oppression was quietly fueling it on an international scale. While they droned on about supporting athletes' "right to freedom of expression," they were busy crushing that same freedom abroad -- and trading in human capital while they were at it. All to make a buck.
Here at home, Nike almost seems to be taking a page from the playbook of their foreign partners, the Chinese Communist Party. The company launched an all-out war against religious liberty in places like Tennessee, where the brand argued that letting adoption groups live by their beliefs was somehow bad for business. If it were up to the shoe giant, they'd kick men and women of faith right out of the public square. When it comes right down to it, Nike has a lot more in common with China's dictatorial regime than anyone cared to admit. Let that serve as a warning, Vice President Mike Pence has said. "A progressive corporate culture that ignores the abuse of human rights is not progressive, it is repressive." And a progressive corporate culture that not only ignores it -- but engages in it -- is far, far worse.