A report, released last week, estimates more than half a million Uighur Muslims are being coerced into picking cotton in Xinjiang, northwest China. Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, the document released on December 14 said, noting that it is also essential for producing garments across Asia.
Beijing has consistently denied abuse against Uighurs.
Franck Riester, France’s junior minister for trade, told Le Monde China has not fulfilled “sufficient commitments” over international treaties.
He said the nation has not ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention prohibiting forced labour, identifying it as a dealbreaker.
“We cannot facilitate investment in China if we do not commit to abolishing forced labour,’’ Mr Riester said, alluding to support from fellow European countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and The Netherlands.
“Trade agreements also serve as a lever to advance social issues, to fight against forced labour, in particular of Uighurs.’’
This casts a shadow over the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) which is close to being finalised in Brussels.
The CAI would, in theory, benefit Europe by making it easier for firms to invest in China.
But another point of contention is fear about a lack of investment protection for EU companies in China, Politico notes.
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In his book, ‘Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future’, Pope Francis writes: “I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uighurs, the Yazidi.”
This prompted a response from Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, at a briefing in November.
He said: “The Chinese government has always protected the legal rights of ethnic minorities equally.
“The remarks by Pope Francis are groundless.”
Xinjiang is home to more than 21 million people.
Dr Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington told the BBC: “For the first time we not only have evidence of Uyghur forced labour in manufacturing, in garment making, it’s directly about the picking of cotton, and I think that is such a game-changer.
“Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85 percent of China’s cotton and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”