Western powers pushed back against China Friday in a standoff over Beijing's treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority, as major global brands were pulled into the deepening international row.

At least one million Uyghurs and people from other mostly Muslim groups have been held in camps in northwestern Xinjiang, according to rights groups, who accuse authorities of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor.

Uyghur Muslim camp
At least one million Uyghurs and people from other mostly Muslim groups have been held in camps in Xinjiang, rights groups say Photo: AFP / GREG BAKER

The European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States sanctioned several members of Xinjiang's political and economic hierarchy this week in coordinated action over the allegations, prompting retaliation from Beijing in the form of sanctions on individuals from the EU and UK.

The affair leaped from normal diplomatic channels and into the world of fashion, however, when pledges made last year by several companies to boycott Xinjiang cotton resurfaced this week on Chinese-owned social network Weibo, triggering additional controversy.

Xinjiang province
Map of China's north-western Xinjiang region showing suspected detention centres, according to satellite imagery analysed by the Xinjiang Data Project of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Photo: AFP / Laurence CHU

The timely reappearance of the pledges, which were made by the likes of Sweden's H&M, American sportswear giant Nike, Germany's Adidas and Japan's Uniqlo, was denounced Friday by the United states, which implied the resurfacing was a calculated move by Beijing.

"The US condemns the PRC... social media campaign and corporate and consumer boycott against companies, including American, European and Japanese businesses," said State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter, referring to the People's Republic of China.

"We commend and stand with companies that adhere to the US laws, and ensure products we're consuming are not made with forced labor," she said.

Indonesian student activists take part in a role-play as they demonstrate against alleged human rights abuses of China's Uyghur minority Muslim group, outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta Photo: AFP / ADEK BERRY

Chinese celebrities and tech firms have already waded in, pulling partnerships with companies ranging from Nike and H&M to Adidas, Burberry and Calvin Klein.

As the Swedish fashion retailer disappeared from Chinese shopping apps, H&M China said Wednesday it "does not represent any political position" and remained committed to long-term investment in China.

The EU, UK, Canada and US sanctioned several members of Xinjiang's political and economic hierarchy this week in a coordinated action over allegations of widespread abuse in Xinjiang Photo: AFP / Johannes EISELE

Beijing, which insists Xinjiang is an "internal affair", announced sanctions Friday against nine British individuals and four entities, saying they had "maliciously spread lies and disinformation" over the treatment of Uyghurs.

Uyghur Muslim camp
Uyghur community members in Istanbul gather to protest the visit of the Chinese Foreign minister to Turkey. Rights groups believe at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in the northwestern region, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour. Photo: AFPTV / Kadir DEMIR

The individual sanctions were confined to critical legislators rather than government ministers, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain stood squarely behind them.

"The MPs and other British citizens sanctioned by China today are performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims," he tweeted.

There have been reports of forced labour in cotton-rich Xinjiang Photo: CNS / STR

"Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them," he said, days after his government defended the need for critical engagement with China on climate change and trade in a new global strategy paper.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said China's envoy to London would be summoned to hear "that we will not be silenced in speaking out about these human rights abuses".

Beijing also sanctioned the China Research Group of MPs, the Uyghur Tribunal, and Essex Court Chambers, a partnership of lawyers who wrote a legal opinion that there is a case for genocide charges against the Chinese government concerning the Turkic ethnic group.

All of the sanctioned parties will be barred from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, while any assets in the country will be frozen, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be banned from dealings with them.

China flatly denies any abuses in the region, describing detention centers there as work camps intended to boost incomes and deter extremism in a region made restive by central control.

Beijing accused Western countries of "provoking first" with their sanctions.

"We can only talk and deal with them in a way they understand and will remember," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

"I think they will get used to it gradually."

And it comes after a debut face-to-face meeting between US and Chinese top diplomats last week in Alaska descended into public mud-slinging.


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