A wolf in sheep's clothing: How China is exploiting fast fashion to dress up its Uyghur genocide

6 min read

Shiraz is Moroccan, Wafa is Lebanese, Leila is from Egypt, Abir is from Qatar, and Hiba is from the UAE.

All over the Arab world, these young businesswomen share two common points: they gather millions of followers on Instagram and Tiktok, and they generate profit by sharing their recent fashion purchases from online fast-fashion outlets.

Among them, Chinese-based e-commerce group Shein is winning the heart of young audiences thanks to its ultra-cheap prices, easy shipping terms, and daily renewal in trendy clothes, accessories, and beauty products.

"In the Muslim-Arab world, Shein developed clothing lines adapted to religious imperatives, featuring a corner dedicated to 'Arab wear', including long skirts, wide pants, kaftans, jalabiyas, and abayas"

Founded in 2008 by Chinese American CEO Chris Xu, the company reached its peak during the Covid times, with 24.6 million followers on its main Instagram account, and 4.5 million followers on its Arabic-speaking one.

In 2021, the fast-fashion retailer reached $15 billion in turnover according to Forbes and delivered to 150 countries.

Since its implementation in the Middle East in the last seven years, the brand has developed particularly well in two Arab countries; the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

A member of a collective against violence towards women pastes a banner reading "Tommy Hilfiger complicit in the Uyghurs genocide" in Paris France [Getty Images]
A member of a collective against violence towards women pastes a banner reading "Tommy Hilfiger complicit in the Uyghurs genocide" in Paris, France [Getty Images]

Shein set up a dramatically efficient business strategy: the multinational developed itself by attracting customers through social media platforms.

The brand actively collaborates with influencers who get free items and financial compensation from discount codes they share and the hauls videos that they film.

Potential clients are also encouraged to watch live streams and purchase in real-time. As a result, promotional codes and links foster a positive self-reflection, leaving clients satisfied with the good deals they obtain.

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The company also knows how to appropriate trends and fill the gaps: it offers affordable copies of its major rivals’ designs, including Zara, as well as haute couture brands, allowing aspiring fashionistas with modest outcomes to keep up with the times without “breaking the bank”.

In the Muslim-Arab world, Shein developed clothing lines adapted to religious imperatives, featuring a corner dedicated to “Arab wear”, including long skirts, wide pants, kaftans, jalabiyas, and abayas.

The brand keeps riding the wave of consciousness and tolerance, by promoting a “Muslim friendly” facade, despite the 2020 scandal where it was accused of religious appropriation by selling prayer rugs printed with the Kaaba and Mihrab motives in its “home decor” section.

"Sweatshops are also located close to the detention camps where Uyghurs can be imprisoned for up to several years"

Under the same logic, the multinational recently seized the opportunity of the Ramadan season to engage in targeted campaigning. As the website adapted to the festive season, Muslim influencers also shared their Iftar and Eid-al-Fitr looks while offering special discounts to their fans.

However, the influencers’ market in the Arab world is diverse, and big influencers inspire smaller ones to enter the system. In countries facing economic struggles and high unemployment rates, an activity which can be carried out from home with a simple phone attracts the attention of many.

As Shein cooperates with shipping companies whose costs are expensive, young “wassitas” grow their business by ordering products for local clients who don’t own bank accounts.

In Tripoli, Nour, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, earned a solid reputation by word of mouth. She makes $1.5 for every order she places: “Orders over $90 will take 15-20 days while $140 orders will be there in 8 to 12 days, without any shipping fee!”

This occupation allows her to support her family in a country where Syrians are often exploited, working illegally, and exposed to threats in public spaces. For Nour, consumers’ addiction to new looks and trends represents an opportunity to be financially stable.  

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However, this local system of economy bringing some temporary financial relief hides a dreadful reality in terms of human rights and workers’ exploitation.

For the author of the Black Book of Fashion, Dr Audrey Millet, Shein lacks transparency regarding its activities as the production chain is impossible to trace down due to a dense network of small factories all over China.

Yet, it is evident that human exploitation is at the centre of the system for the company to deliver items at such a low price and at such a pace.

In late 2020, the Public Eye report “toiling away for Shein” investigated the working conditions of small suppliers in South China: it shed light on strong safety deficiencies, illegal hours according to Chinese laws, high skills expectancies, and low wages, and absence of legal contracts.

Workers were also exposed to chemicals and plumb, having serious consequences on their health, including allergies, dermatitis, but also infertility and even lung cancer.

The situation took an even more tragic turn starting in 2014 when the Chinese government decided to target the Uyghurs, a native Muslim community based in autonomous Eastern Turkistan, “Xin Jiang” in Chinese, meaning “new colony”.

According to sociologist Dilnur Reyhan, director of the European Uyghur Institute, the widespread abuses characterising the colonial approach of Chinese president Xi Jinping towards her people is way worse than China’s policies of “cultural eradication” in Tibet.

In her words, the genocidal practices which have been called out by 39 countries at the UN and recognised by close to 10 countries all over the world were made possible by the Chinese president’s election in 2013 who traded the Chinese political tradition of “low profile” implemented for 40 years for a strong China reclaiming its economical space through the “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiative and its power in the international arena.

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The ASPI report Uyghur for sale describes the mass transfer of Uyghur workers to factories all over China, under conditions “strongly suggesting forced labour”.

Sweatshops are also located close to the detention camps where Uyghurs can be imprisoned for up to several years. Since 2019, repressions have also affected “Hui” Chinese Muslims and Christians, whose mosques and churches are being destroyed while their worshipers face arrests.

Dilnur stresses that Chinese companies cannot develop themselves without collaborating with the regime: without its support, international ambitions are unimaginable.

As fast fashion companies’ cynicism is exposed through the tireless commitment of Uyghur activists and local politicians in the West, she condemns the attitude of Muslim leaders for not calling on China to stop all inhumane treatments and calls for urgent solidarity toward her people.

The New Arab has reached out to Shein for a comment but at the time of publication, we have not received a response.

Elise Daniaud is a researcher and PhD candidate specialising in Russian-Syrian relations, the Syrian conflict and political discourse analysis.

Naama al Alwani is a journalist based in Paris specialising in Syrian affairs, refugee rights and justice processes.