In 1862, Lancashire mill workers at great personal sacrifice took a principled stand and refused to touch cotton picked by slaves on American plantations. Up to that point they had been among the best paid workers in the UK but many were subsequently driven into poverty. Their decision had a great impact on the course of the American civil war as it weakened the economy of the slave-owning south and contributed to the ultimate victory of the unionists in the north.
In 1863, president Lincoln wrote to thank “the working men of Manchester” for their “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country”. The president’s words still appear to this day on the pedestal of his statue in Lincoln Square Manchester.
The great boycott effort of my youth involved opposition to the apartheid regime of South Africa. On the initiative of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, ordinary people around the world were urged not to buy products from that country. I remember our family, though not well off, would not choose fruit from South Africa in the supermarket though it was cheap and high quality. An academic boycott began in 1965; England’s cricket tour to the country scheduled for 1968-69 was cancelled after the intending visitors selected a non-white player Basil D’Oliveira as a member of the team; the US Congress in 1986 enacted disinvestment legislation. Finally, the system of apartheid was scrapped in the early 1990s and the leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, became president.
One key feature of these two early examples of boycotts is that they involved ordinary people and a degree of self-sacrifice, by workers of their pay, and ordinary consumers of good products.
My next memory of a large-scale boycott was the American-led effort to persuade the world’s athletes not to go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This was to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan. In addition to the opprobrium being drawn to Russian heads, the Central Intelligence Agency armed the Mujahideen to help them resist the invaders. What irony! The next country to invade Afghanistan was of course the United States, supported by western allies such as Britain. Those same weapons were used against the new invaders. Moscow retaliated by urging the Soviet bloc to boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Both Olympics were thereby devalued by government policy directive.
More recent boycott efforts tend to be started by well-meaning activists on the basis of principle. The latest one, concerning the cotton crop grown in Xinjiang, has generated something of a storm in a teacup as two sets of activists are urging boycotts in opposing direction. Several famous international brands use cotton in their fashion garments, for some of them all or part of the cotton comes from Xinjiang. It has been claimed by one group of activists that part of the cotton crop in the province is picked by slave labour. International brands have become very sensitive about this sort of subject in recent years. Any suggestion of child labour, low wages, poor working conditions etc has them running scared. They want to distance themselves from such allegations and demonstrate “ethical sourcing” to protect their reputation. Some famous brands subsequently issued statements to the effect that they would not use Xinjiang cotton, in order to avoid a boycott of their products in western markets.
In response, an opposing group in the mainland said the claims of slave labour were false and libellous, its members urged a boycott of the brands concerned. At least two of the brands seem to have been dropped from the more popular ecommerce websites there.
It is not easy for the neutral observer to get to the bottom of this. On the one hand there is a report that most cotton in Xinjiang is harvested by machine nowadays. But that still leaves a large amount to be picked by hand. We know this is hard unpleasant work: that is why the plantation owners of the southern states bought African slaves to do the work in the first place. Organisations established precisely to help brands source ethically have investigated and found no evidence of slave labour, but this has not stopped the original activists who claim the investigations were flawed.
The political background to the subject does not help make things clearer. Following a series of terrorist incidents, China established detention camps in Xinjiang as part of its efforts to deradicalize Muslim extremists from terrorist organisations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Western critics have referred to the centres as “concentration camps” (though inmates are released and some have emigrated) and have started to use the term “genocide” to describe China’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority. First to do so, on his last day in office, was then Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo even though the department’s own lawyers said the activities there did not justify use of the term.
Another development was the change in attitude towards the ETIM. Since 2003 this had been designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations and as recently as July last year the Security Council estimated the group had in excess of 1,100 fighters. Suddenly in November Washington delisted ETIM. It is instructive that The United States is now urging a boycott of the Winter Olympics due to be held next year in Beijing over the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang Province. Perhaps China’s real crime is being the only major power not to have invaded Afghanistan in living memory. What may have begun as a genuine attempt to improve the lot of detainees seems to have become embroiled in a wider diplomatic exercise to attack China.
As any observer of my wardrobe will readily testify, I am not a fashionista. I think I’ll sit this particular boycott out.