Pedestrians walk past anti-terror propaganda posters pasted along the streets of Urumqi, farwest China's Xinjiang region on September 16, 2014. Ilham Tohti, a former university professor from China's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority is facing a life sentence for separatism, as critics warn the prosecution will worsen in violence-wracked Xinjiang.      AFP PHOTO/GOH CHAI HIN        (Photo credit should read GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Rare access inside Xinjiang's Uyghur camps
05:00 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

A US sportswear company has dropped a Chinese supplier over fears its products were produced using forced labor in detention camps in Xinjiang.

In the past year, numerous reports from rights groups and former detainees have emerged of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims, being detained in so-called “vocational education centers” in Xinjiang.

This week, Badger Sportswear, a North Carolina-based retailer, said it would “no longer source any product” from Xinjiang-based supplier Hetian Taida. While Badger said Hetian Taida’s current operations were “consistent with our Global Sourcing Policy” it added historical documentation was insufficient and so it was severing the relationship based on an “abundance of caution.”

Additionally, the US company said it would no longer source products from “this region of China.”

Reacting to the news Thursday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang would not comment on the specific case, but said that “if this company … cut off its trade dealings with China based on wrong information, then I believe it is such a pity for this company.”

“China has abolished the reeducation through labor system,” Lu added. “Xinjiang’s vocational skills and education training is totally different from the ‘forced labor’ alleged by some parties.”

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How China is tearing Uyghur families apart
03:34 - Source: CNN

Labor camps

Badger launched an investigation into its supply line after Hetian Taida was featured in reports on Chinese state TV about the Xinjiang camps. A CCTV report on the camps showed lines of Uyghurs working on sewing machines and in what appeared to be a warehouse.

Interviewees spoke with gratitude of the opportunities provided by the camps, and said they would have succumbed to “extremism” if not for the government’s intervention.

However, former detainees able to speak more freely have complained of being separated from their families, held for indefinite periods of time and forced to endure intensive “brainwashing” sessions, including close study of Communist Party propaganda.

Reports about the camps were initially denied by Beijing, but the government has since pivoted to a vocal defense of the policy as necessary for national security and ethnic harmony.

“Today’s Xinjiang is not only beautiful but also safe and stable. No matter where they are or at what time of the day, people are no longer afraid of going out, shopping, dining and traveling,” Shohrat Zakir, a high-ranking Xinjiang government official, told state-run news agency Xinhua in October.

“There is still a long way to go for southern Xinjiang to eradicate the environment and soil of terrorism and religious extremism.”

Rights groups have warned of policies applied to Uyghurs extending to other Muslim groups in China, concerns which were bolstered by a meeting in Beijing this month of Chinese Islamic organizations, where they were urged “to uphold the sinicization of their religion by improving their political stance and following the Party’s leadership.”

This week, the Associated Press reported that more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang may abandon their Chinese citizenship and leave the country. Citing a statement from Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, AP said those leaving China would be able to apply for citizenship or permanent residency in the neighboring country.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry representatives did not respond to multiple requests from CNN for comment.

International criticism

Increasing pressure on Muslims in China has led to a growing backlash from the Islamic world, including in countries that traditionally have strong ties with Beijing.

In December, hundreds of people reportedly protested outside the Chinese embassy in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Protests have also been held in India, Bangladesh, and Turkey, which has a large Uyghur population.

Also last month, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a grouping of Muslim states, warned the situation in Xinjiang showed evidence “rising discrimination on the basis of … religion.”

The OIC “expressed concern on these disturbing reports on the treatment of Uyghur Mulsims and expressed hope that China, which has excellent bilateral relations with most OIC countries as well as the OIC, would address the legitimate concerns of Muslims around the world,” it said in a statement.

CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed reporting from Beijing.