For the past decade, Mikayla Lowe Davis has been braiding and styling hair for her customers.
“The first thing people see a lot of times is our hair,” she says. “We have to represent our crown and be confident with wearing it.”
The 29-year-old stylist, who owns Mikki Styles Salon, is braiding in synthetic hair to the head of a customer in Arlington, Texas, a process which takes several hours and costs upwards of $115.
“It helps them to become more empowered,” Lowe Davis says of her customers. “It gives them confidence when they can see how beautiful they are, how beautiful their hair is.”
Mikayla Lowe Davis says manufacturers need to give more information to sellers and consumers on the origin of the hair. Credit: Ashley Killough, CNN
Lowe Davis has a degree in biology, but the creative side of the hair industry drew her in. She sources products at beauty supply stores — a fixture of most African American communities.
“Black women spend so much money on hair care products,” says Frankesha Watkins, an MBA-educated entrepreneur who owns the BPolished Beauty Supply store in Arlington. “I learned that from this pandemic, no matter what’s going on, people want their hair to be nice.”
In fact, the business of hair extensions is booming, according to Tiffany Gill, associate professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the book “Beauty Shop Politics.” The Black hair care market in the United States was estimated to be worth more than $2.5 billion in 2018 by research company Mintel, and globally, the commodity of human hair is known as “black gold” — due to the continued rise in its value. The majority of hair products come from Asia, mostly China.
Now, some of the Chinese factories supplying thousands of kilograms of hair to the American market are under scrutiny by the United States government, which is alleging the use of forced labor in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang — where rights groups say up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps since 2016. Beijing has called the camps “vocational training centers” and says the expansion of factory jobs campaigners have linked to the camps is part of a “poverty alleviation” program.
Hair products are being exported from Xinjiang around the world
Source: Chinese export data 2017-2019
In September, US Customs and Border Protection announced a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on any incoming shipments of hair from the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park in southern Xinjiang. That followed two earlier WROs on companies registered within the same area, including the June seizure of 13 tons of human hair worth $800,000 from Lop County Meixin Hair Products — which is now subject to a criminal investigation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and a previous order in May blocking imports from Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories.
The two companies did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but the Information Office of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region faxed a response to CNN regarding the earlier WROs, expressing “severe condemnation” about the “barbaric act” against “private enterprises” that “provide opportunities for local ethnic minority people to achieve employment and help people get rid of poverty.”
Until earlier this year, Hetian Haolin had been a major supplier of synthetic hair products to a Texas-based company called I&I Hair. Its main product, EZBraid, is the top-selling hair braid at BPolished.
“When I found out about the forced labor, honestly I was shocked,” Watkins says. “I don’t want to participate or support anything that goes against what I personally believe in.”
I&I Hair stopped shipping from Hetian Haolin in early 2020, when the company learned about the allegations of forced labor.
“I don’t think a lot of us even spent time looking into these issues of internment camps,” William Choe, digital marketing manager for I&I Hair told CNN. “We were oblivious to it, (so) I believe that a lot of other people in the industry are as well.”
I&I cancelled all orders from the factory, and later cut ties with their agency, KCA Global in South Korea, which I&I said managed their supply chain.
“I do think that they’ve done their due diligence to make things right,” Watkins says, referring to I&I.
OS Hair, another hair company based in Duluth, Georgia, which makes a product called Spetra Braid, was also receiving large shipments of hair products from Hetian Haolin until April this year.
OS Hair has also now changed its supplier, and said a South Korean company, Selim Fiber, arranged the deal with the Xinjiang factories. A company executive from Selim Fiber, who did not want to be named, said it knew nothing about forced labor allegations, and only shipped the raw materials to the factory under a contract with KCA Global — the same agency that had worked with I&I Hair.
OS Hair, also known as
Optimum Solution Group
Han Hyun-jung, CEO of KCA Global, told CNN it was shocking to hear of the forced labor allegations at Hetian Haolin. He said the company regrets what happened and no longer works with the manufacturer. Han said KCA Global had signed a contract with a factory in Xuchang, eastern China, which later moved some production to Xinjiang without them realizing. He added that the manufacturer also told KCA Global that “they were acting properly according to the poverty alleviation project.”
Both I&I Hair and OS Hair denied news reports published in July saying their orders were part of the 13-ton seizure, saying they never ordered from Lop County Meixin Hair Products, and had already canceled their orders from Xinjiang months earlier.
Shipping records obtained by CNN show that two other US-based companies, Sky Trading in New Jersey, and Global Morado in Los Angeles, received shipments this year from Lop County Meixin. Neither company responded to CNN’s request for comment.
As companies attempt to clean up their supply chains, stylist Mikayla Lowe Davis says she hopes the seizures will create a wake-up call for the industry, and push manufacturers to be more transparent about the origin of hair products entering the US.
“A lot of times it’s not made clear on the packaging on where exactly it came from,” she says. “I definitely don’t want it to come from slave labor.”
Associate Professor Tiffany Gill says she finds it particularly sad that the accusations of forced labor are associated with products used primarily by the African American community given “the long, painful history and legacy of forced labor that was a part of American chattel slavery.”
But the blame has to lie with the manufacturers, she says.
“We have to be careful not to put the entire onus for ending these exploitative practices on consumers,” she added. “So much of it is shrouded in secrecy, that we don’t know the means of production, that we don’t know who is producing what we wear on our hair.”
Putting the burden of responsibility onto manufacturers and importers to prove the absence of forced labor in their supply chains is the goal of a new US bill — the ‘Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’ — which passed with rare bipartisan support in the House of Representatives on September 22, by a margin of 406-3. Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said “China is strongly indignant and opposed” to the bill which “maliciously smears the human rights situation in Xinjiang.”
‘Everyone’s hair was cut short’
The US accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang are part of a wider pattern of alleged human rights violations by the Chinese government in the region.
Despite being the largest of China’s regions and provinces, Xinjiang has a comparatively small population of just 22 million. It is home to a variety of minority groups, of which the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs are the largest. Uyghurs, alongside other Turkic groups including Kazakh and Kyrgyz people, are culturally and linguistically distinct from Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group.
After a series of deadly attacks in recent years, authorities have taken an increasingly tough approach in combating what they claim is a violent separatist movement among minority groups in Xinjiang.
This view has been used to justify strict curbs on religious freedoms alongside sweeping surveillance measures, including the installation of security checkpoints across the region.
The US says this policy has culminated in the creation of a network of shadowy mass internment camps, intended to subdue and assimilate Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities through coercive political indoctrination, claims China vehemently denies.
CNN has documented multiple testimonies of people who escaped from the camps, including women who say they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to undergo sterilization procedures – all accusations which China has denied.
Leaked Chinese documents seen by CNN show that people can be sent to a camp for perceived infractions which range from wearing a headscarf or a long beard, holding a passport, or having too many children.
Former Xinjiang resident Yerzhan Kurman had moved to Kazakhstan with his family in 2015. He returned to visit his mother in 2018, but was then swiftly taken into a “political educational school.”
“They came in the middle of the night and took me to the camp,” says the 42-year-old. “They handcuffed us, put a bag over our head.”
Kurman, who is ethnically Kazakh, says he was placed in a cell with nine other men, with whom he shared a bucket as a toilet. They were monitored continuously by cameras, weren’t allowed to talk to each other, and had to ask permission to use the bucket. If they disobeyed, they were punished by being made to stand upright all night, or denied food, he says.
They also got in trouble if they refused to sing the Chinese national anthem up to seven times a day, he says. If they failed Chinese language tests, their detention could be extended.
Gulzira Auelkhan, a 41-year-old ethnic Kazakh, says she was being forced to work in a factory in Xinjiang after spending 15 months in internment camps. Credit: Dinara Saliyeva for CNN
Another former Xinjiang resident, Gulzira Auelkhan, says she was also thrown in a camp when she returned to the region from Kazakhstan to visit her family in 2017.
“Cameras monitored us everywhere,” says Auelkhan, who is also ethnically Kazakh. “If we cried they would handcuff us, if we moved they would also handcuff us.”
“They would allow us to go to the toilet for two minutes only.” Auelkhan says. “If anyone exceeded that time, they would hit us with electric sticks.”
Auelkhan says the authorities told her she “came from a terrorist country,” and then they “cut my hair. Took my blood samples.”
Several other women have previously told CNN they had their hair forcibly removed during internment.
“They cut our hair off, made us bald,” says Gulbakhar Jalilova, an ethnic Uyghur from Kazakhstan now living in Istanbul after escaping the camp system. “Everything was gone. Nothing. I had long hair.”
Zumrat Dawut, an ethnic Uyghur who is now living in Washington, DC, after fleeing Xinjiang, says she endured a similar experience.
Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur exile now living in Washington DC, says her hair was cut off in an internment camp in Xinjiang. Credit: Zumrat Dawut
“I had long hair, all the way to my hips,” Dawut says. “On the second day, they took me to a separate office, where they had a tray with a machine and scissors, and they cut my hair.”
Zumrat says “everyone’s hair was cut short,” which made the female inmates “sad and stressed.” She doesn’t know what happened to the hair, but says her “heart aches” if she sees hair products from China in American stores.
The systematic nature of the hair removal has also been confirmed by Qelbinur Sidik, an ethnic Uzbek who is married to a Uyghur. Sidik used to live in Xinjiang and is now exiled in the Netherlands. She told CNN that she was forced to teach Chinese in one of the internment camps in 2017, and that everyone entering the camp had their hair shorn off. She was told her role was to teach “illiterates” and that the assignment at the camp was “highly secret.”
“After about 10 days, all of them were completely shaven, hair and beards,” Sidik says. “Women also were shaven.”
During a months-long investigation, CNN was unable to verify what happened to the hair allegedly taken from the women in the camps. Industry experts tell CNN that the high value of human hair means it is unlikely to be discarded, but point out that it would only make up a small part of the hair that would be needed for a stable supply chain. China also imports hair from India, Malaysia and several other countries.
‘Xinjiang human hair’ is advertised on a Chinese hair company website. CNN purchased some of the hair samples, which are still available to buy online. Credit: Emeda Hair, Rebecca Wright/CNN
CNN was able to purchase several hair samples advertised as “Xinjiang human hair,” along with hair labeled as Chinese and Russian, from a Chinese company called Emeda Hair — which has not responded to request for comment. DNA testing of hair samples is not possible without the root, and drug testing on the hair samples purchased proved inconclusive.
The Xinjiang authorities did not respond to request for comment on the accusations that hair is removed from detainees, or the allegations that the hair is being sold. But in September, China’s state-run tabloid newspaper The Global Times published a report quoting a hair product company manager as saying the “sensational accusation” that hair forcibly taken from ethnic minority women was being used in their supply chain was a lie that was “crazy and ignorant of the industry.”
When US Customs seized hair products worth an estimated $800,000 this summer, it highlighted that human hair is a valuable commodity that is traded across international borders.
“People in the industry do call it ‘black gold,’ and the reason why is because the value in the last 10 years has increased almost 12 fold,” says Krishan Jhalani, CEO of US-based Indique Hair, which sells premium Remy human hair donated to temples in India. “The demand has gone through the roof.”
Credit: Google Earth Pro, Planet Labs
This area in Lop County, in southern Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture, was largely empty a decade ago. Rapid construction over the past few years has created an industrial park with several hair factories alongside suspected internment camps.
China is the biggest manufacturer of human hair wigs and extensions in the world, and the main supplier of hair products to the US, with nearly $1 billion of exports entering the US in 2019, US Customs and Border Protection says. The scale of production, price point and online accessibility have all helped China to dominate the market.
“The US absolutely is one of the growth drivers in the industry,” Jhalani added.
And despite pressure from the US government regarding the use of alleged forced labor, the US is still Xinjiang’s fastest growing overall export market, with exports increasing 250% to $26.6 million from April 2019 to April 2020, a study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows. After chemical and mineral products, hair is the biggest export product from Xinjiang to the US in terms of order volume.
Data from US shipping data company Import Genius shows that shipments of hair products direct from Xinjiang to the US only appeared in 2017 and increased rapidly after that.
CEO of US-based Indique Hair
“It was fairly late in 2017 and then enter 2018, a lot more volume, when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair,” Michael Kanko, CEO of Import Genius told CNN. The regular large exports of hair continued into 2019 and 2020, he added.
The export records mostly originated from one location in Hotan, southern Xinjiang — the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park, part of the Beijing Industrial Park. Kanko believes that pattern is due to China’s expansion of the camps in the area.
“The source is clearly Uyghur labor camp internment, slaves basically,” Kanko says. “I’ve seen a lot of sketchy and sad things in trade data, but this is the new low for me.”
A photo published by Xinjiang’s Department of Justice on a Chinese government WeChat account in April 2017 shows lines of male detainees in blue overalls inside the Lop County #4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center. Credit: WeChat/Xinjiang Department of Justice
Chinese local officials were offering hair industry executives tours to Xinjiang around 2015 or 2016, promising cheap labor and favorable tax policies, a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be named told CNN. For years, the hair industry in China has been squeezed by rising wage costs and increasing competition from other parts of Asia, experts say.
In its June 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US Department of State concluded that the Xinjiang authorities “offer subsidies incentivizing Chinese companies to open factories in close proximity to the internment camps, and local governments receive additional funds for each inmate forced to work in these sites at a fraction of minimum wage or without any compensation.’’
Chinese state media reported in July that there are 32 hair companies in the Lop County industrial park, employing 7,000 people described as “rural surplus labor,” adding that there are plans to expand further. In March, there were 21 companies and 4,000 workers in the park.
Credit: Google Earth Pro
Credit: Planet Labs
Satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs and Google Earth Pro shows the rapid expansion of the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park over the past few months. This image shows an internment camp — or what the Chinese government calls the ‘vocational training center’ — that was built in tandem with factories in the industrial park.
At least 26 new structures are visible from satellite imagery shot March to September 2020. The structures are at different levels of completion, some are still under construction while others have been finished.
At least seven new buildings are visible in this block, while several other structures appear to still be under construction.
A new blue cluster of buildings, possibly a storage facility, given they are a bit smaller than the factory buildings. This area was previously a parking lot.
In September, the US Department of Homeland Security also identified Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center as a possible source of forced labor and has banned any products made with labor from the camp from entering the US.
The expansion of the camp infrastructure is happening across Xinjiang, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank partly funded by the Australian and US governments. In a new ASPI report, researchers used satellite imagery to identify 380 suspected detention facilities in Xinjiang, some of which have expanded recently.
“The evidence in this database shows that despite Chinese officials’ claims about detainees graduating from the camps, significant investment in the construction of new detention facilities has continued,” ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser says.
This photo of the Lop County #4 camp was taken in July 2018 by journalists from Bitter Winter magazine, which is funded by an Italian religious freedom group. It shows high fences lined with barbed wire, guards and surveillance cameras. A sign on the gate reads “Lop County Vocational Skills Education and Training Center.” Credit: Bitter Winter
“This is the sample exhibition hall of Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park,” Li Feng, a Chinese news reporter says into a hand-held microphone, pointing out rows of completed wigs displayed behind her on mannequins.
Li walks through to the factory floor, adding that thousands of “surplus rural laborers” have been “absorbed” to work at the factory. The video shows long rows of uniformed ethnic minority workers, along with Han Chinese managers.
“My goal now is to make one more wig every day,” says a worker in the video called Mutailip Iminiyazi, a Uyghur name.
The whole industrial park is now subject to an import ban from the US government.
Credit: Google Earth Pro
This drone video taken by the state-run Xinhua news agency shows rows of factories on Jing Luo Avenue, where several hair factories are located. In July, US Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order on products from the Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. located on Jing Luo Avenue, due to the suspected use of forced labor.
Credit: Xinhua News
The drone video also shows two multi-story buildings under construction.
Satellite imagery shows that construction on these factories began in late 2018 and was finished by late 2019.
The pink residential-style buildings and open courtyard visible in the drone video are part of an internment camp — also known as a vocational and training center. The camp is located less than 100 meters (328 feet) from the rows of factories shown in the drone video.
“The production lines around me are making every effort to complete a batch of overseas orders,” the reporter says. “They are increasing the speed of working, and they are more motivated to get rid of poverty.”
The factory manager tells the reporter that they are implementing the “poverty alleviation” scheme under the ”important instruction” of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The year 2020 has been marked by Xi with a pledge to help end extreme poverty. Xinjiang, one of the poorest and least urbanized regions in China, was one of the target areas for this program.
The scheme is presented by state media as a noble, benevolent effort by the ruling Communist Party to help predominantly poor rural workers gain access to the material benefits enjoyed by China’s urban residents — they are offered free training and stable jobs to enable them to support their families and achieve a better life.
But to many Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the term “poverty alleviation” has a more sinister meaning.
That includes the two ethnic Kazakh Chinese nationals, Yerzhan Kurman and Gulzira Auelkhan, who both worked at the same glove factory in Xinjiang in late 2018.
There was no freedom.”
Kurman, who was a farmer in Xinjiang before he left, says he received an ultimatum to take a factory job soon after his release from the internment camp.
“After having spent nine months in the camp, I had five days rest at home. On day six they told me that I would have to work,” Kurman says. “They said that I couldn’t refuse, as they could take me to the camp again. So on day six I went to the textile factory.”
Yerzhan Kurman, an ethnic Kazakh with three children, says he was taken into a camp for nine months, then forced to work in a factory. Credit: Dinara Saliyeva for CNN
He says he was forced to make gloves in the factory alongside thousands of others for two months.
“We couldn’t do anything without permission,” he says. “We would iron, fold and accurately put into boxes all 250 gloves. If we didn’t, they would punish us.”
They were warned they would not be paid anything if they didn’t complete 250 gloves each day, he adds.
Kurman says he repeatedly told the factory officials he wanted to get back to his wife and three children in Kazakhstan. He says he had to live on site at the factory, and was taken to see his mother once a week.
“While making those gloves, I was always thinking about my children,” he says. “Were they well, sick or dead, as we didn’t have any information from them. They didn’t let us communicate. All I needed was my family. I told them that, but they didn’t care.”
He says he was told his salary would be 600 yuan ($88) per month, but after two months’ work, he had received nothing. They eventually gave him 300 yuan ($44), and he returned to Kazakhstan.
“Nobody working in the factory was happy with the job,” says Gulzira Auelkhan. “None of them worked of their own free will.”
“I told them that I had already been in education and I didn’t want to work,” she says. “But they say that if I refuse, that means my ideology was still wrong and I would go back to the camp.”
Auelkhan says she was even spotted by her husband in a separate state media video of the factory that appeared on YouTube, working at a sewing machine during a tour by local officials. Credit: Chinese state media
Ahmat Yusan, 62, a former Xinjiang resident and ethnic Uyghur exiled in Turkey with his wife, told CNN that his daughter, a law graduate, is currently being forced to work in a factory in Aksu, Xinjiang. She is occasionally able to make contact. They were a well-off family, he added, and his daughter had never had a job before.
Yusan’s wife said her stepdaughter “cried so hard” when talking about the forced labor, saying she “lived through hell” and that she would have considered suicide if it was permissible.
Testimonies like these shatter the illusion of a voluntary job creation program in Xinjiang, experts say.
Several major reports have concluded that the poverty alleviation scheme provides a cloak for forced labor, including analyses from ASPI, as well as the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in the US, and academic and China expert Adrian Zenz.
The reports also highlight the mass transfer of Uyghur and ethnic minority labor from Xinjiang to factories in other parts of the province and across China — known officially as a “mutual pairing assistance program.” ASPI says at least 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred to 27 factories across China since 2017.
ASPI’s ‘Uyghurs for Sale’ report even identified advertisements in online forums offering to arrange large numbers of Xinjiang workers. CNN has verified that several of the adverts are still online, including one with phrases like “absolutely obedient,” “can endure hardships” and “won’t cause trouble.”
Online adverts include one showing a man and women in traditional Uyghur dress — images used routinely on Chinese state media when promoting the idea of ethnic unity. Another offers “Xinjiang people” who can “endure hardships.” Credit: Qingdao Human Resources Website, Baidu Tieba
The Uyghur population in China has long been subject to racist stereotypes, including the trope that they are lazy and poorly skilled, and they have faced discriminatory hiring practices.
A Chinese government white paper titled ‘Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang,’ published in September, details the goal of the “three-year program” on poverty alleviation which was “vigorously implemented” to “improve the quality of the workforce, and change people’s outdated mindset.”
The program was focused on the “impoverished” southern Xinjiang area because “terrorists” and those with “outdated ideas” had urged people to “resist learning” Chinese, and “refuse to improve their vocational skills.”
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of employed people in Xinjiang rose by nearly 2 million, and an average of 1.29 million workers received “training” every year — the “vast majority” of whom obtained vocational skills, the white paper says.
“In 2019, Hotan prefecture alone provided vocational training for 103,300 farmers and herders, of whom 98,300 found work,” it added.
Accusations of forced labor are based upon “fabricated facts” which deny the rights of the people to “move out of poverty and backwardness,” the paper says.
Credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images
During a two-day work conference on Xinjiang in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Communist Party’s policies in the region were “completely correct” and “must be adhered to in the long term.”
Xi said that the policies had brought “unprecedented achievements” in economic growth, social development, and improvement in peoples’ livelihoods. He added that “the sense of gain, happiness, and security” among all ethnic groups had increased.
“The whole party must treat the implementation of the Xinjiang strategy as a political task, and work hard to implement it completely and accurately to ensure that the Xinjiang work always maintains in the correct political direction,” Xi added.
Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, who is currently based in New Orleans, says she doesn’t “have a lot of patience” for the Chinese government’s idea of poverty alleviation.
“Millions of people are being sent to concentration camps, so people have been cut off from any chance of getting jobs, advancing their careers, studying, taking care of their families,” Murphy says. “Instead, they are being sent to glove factories and hair factories.”
“They should close down these factories,” says former detainee Gulzira Auelkhan. “Those are made by using slavery. So many people were crying while making those products.”
‘As consumers, we need to know’
US companies are already shifting their supply chain away from Xinjiang.
Multiple auditors have also suspended operations in the region, including the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), which said “normal social compliance audits cannot be conducted in the XUAR due to restrictions on the movement of third-party auditors.” The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has suspended working in Xinjiang because “the operating environment prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed.”
Data from Import Genius shows that no hair shipments have arrived direct from Xinjiang to the US by sea since the US seizure at the end of June. But the opaque nature of the hair supply chain means that products can pass through multiple places on their way into the US market, a route which can conceal their origin.
Mikayla Lowe Davis
Focusing only on Xinjiang also does not take into account the reality that goods, and labor, are being transferred back and forth within China.
“Three years ago, a lot of hair factories started outsourcing part of their production to Xinjiang,” said a person familiar with the matter. The source said some hair products are being sent to Xinjiang for the labor-intensive parts of the process, before being sent back to other parts of China where they are packaged, labeled and shipped out.
The system of Chinese hair factories outsourcing the heavy-duty production to save on labor costs is already established, industry insiders say. One of the main beneficiaries of this has been North Korea.
Hair products are exempt from UN sanctions on North Korea introduced in 2017, and the country has ramped up production since then, with $22.4 million of hair exports to China in 2018, data from Trading Economics shows. Chinese export data from 2017-2019, obtained by CNN, also shows regular shipments of incomplete hair products going to North Korea, most of it driven across the border.
But since the North Korea-China border closed in January to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the trade flow has dried up, and prices have soared.
Some of “the largest hair importers in the States” are now complaining of an “emergency” in supply of popular products such as lace closures and lace front wigs, says a US hair industry insider, who does not want to be named. “There’s a massive shortage.”
The importers say some companies are moving production from North Korea to Xinjiang, but “that will take six months to get going,” the source says.
Lace closures and lace front wigs take an experienced worker a day or two to make, as they need to hand-knot individual strands of human hair into a piece of lace. The state media video from the Lop Country Hair Product Industrial Park shows what the reporter calls “surplus rural laborers” making these products, experts say.
The other issue — the transfer of Uyghur labor internally in China — has already been flagged by the apparel industry, which has come under much more scrutiny from policymakers and campaigners in the US — partly because of the big international brands involved, and because Xinjiang produces 20% of the world’s cotton.
Steve Lamer, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, told a US congressional hearing in September that their members “ensure” that their manufacturers across China “do not employ Uyghurs or other ethnicities who have been recruited via labor agents or vocational schools connected to the Chinese government,” in order to adhere to the industry’s “zero tolerance prohibition against forced labor.”
Wigs and hair extensions are some of the biggest-selling items at US beauty supply stores like BPolished in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Ashley Killough, CNN
But currently, the hair industry is not subject to the same sort of international examination.
“There are no regulations in the US, there’s no regulatory authority,” Krishan Jhalani from Indique Hair says.
Professor Laura Murphy says the priority is for US hair companies to investigate their supply chain and take action like I&I Hair did. “But we need bigger companies to step up and do the same thing,” she added.
“It really just came down to us, not knowing, and that’s the most frustrating part,” William Choe from I&I Hair says. “We probably should get together and stand up and stand against these atrocities.”
Since 2017, the exports of hair products from Xinjiang to the US grew rapidly
Source: Import Genius
Solidarity on this issue is also needed from hair importers in other major markets, US Customs and Border Protection said. Chinese export data shows tens of thousands of shipments of hair products mainly going to Europe, Africa and Brazil.
There should also be a “groundswell on social media through social media influencers and through celebrities and pop culture folks who wear hair extensions or use them to raise awareness of this issue,” says Tiffany Gill from Rutgers University.
Gill says it could create an opportunity to shift some production back to the US — particularly into the hands of African American owners who have struggled to get a foothold in the industry due to the dominance of Korean-American companies. Price point would be an issue, though, she adds.
The beauty industry is shifting in the US, as more Black entrepreneurs take over ownership of beauty supply stores, a fixture of African American communities. Credit: Ashley Killough, CNN
Already, the industry is changing. Black entrepreneurs –- mostly women — have been opening three or four stores a week on average over the past six months, Sam Ennon, the president of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA) told CNN. The pandemic actually helped the business, he says, because rental prices in the retail sector have lowered.
The supply chain issue in China is something the “Black hair industry would like to be on the forefront of,” Ennon says.
“I think that if more information did come out about the conditions under which people are laboring to bring this hair to African Americans, that there might be an increased sensitivity just based on the legacy of slavery and forced labor in African American communities,” Gill says.
“It needs to have more light shed upon it,” stylist Lowe Davis says. “A lot of people just don’t know where to start.”
Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.
From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.
“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.
The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.
Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.
Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.
Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
Calls for urgent reduction of violence
Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.
Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.
There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.
1/4 I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.
But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.
Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube
Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.
The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.
By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.
“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”
Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.
The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.
“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”
Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.
Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.
“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”
Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.
Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.
To compete with China and Russia, America needs a new era of multilateralism
With Election Day looming, American progressives yearn for an about-face from President Trump’s foreign policy — perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to US multilateralism.
Multilateralism — working with other countries both through large international institutions and looser coalitions toward common goals — has been a pillar of American foreign policy since World War II.
From the creation of the United Nations and NATO to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War “coalition of the willing” and President Barack Obama’s negotiations alongside Russia and China on the Iran nuclear deal, America has rarely operated alone.
But Donald Trump changed all that.
The Trump administration’s approach truly has been America First equals America Alone. Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He’s in the process of exiting the World Health Organization (WHO). He’s repeatedly questioned the value of NATO and mused about withdrawing from it.
Yet, amid calls to reprioritize “international cooperation, not competition,” progressive aspirations cannot paper over the real geopolitical frictions that will persist post-Trump. Just as conservative efforts to desert multilateral institutions are self-defeating, so too is the belief that international cooperation will blossom after November 3.
American progressives should seek to reengage in multilateral institutions, from the WHO to the UN. But they cannot forget that those institutions remain competitive zones where democracies must defend their values against authoritarian rivals.
Multilateral cooperation has never seemed more urgent — or more lacking
Covid-19 is only the latest instance in which the Trump administration is truculently set against the world, not just withdrawing from the WHO but also refusing to join the Covax initiative, a historic, global multilateral effort to ensure that all countries, rich and poor, will have access to a novel coronavirus vaccine if and when one or more become available.
Amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis, congressional Republicans seek to dismantle the World Trade Organization (WTO), all while a trade war batters American consumers and farmers. The last of the major US-Russia nuclear arms control agreements teeters on the verge of collapse, and both North Korea and Iran continue to improve and expand their nuclear and missile programs.
Given this bevy of undoubtedly self-injurious policies, it is understandable that some progressives are calling on a potential Biden administration to undertake a “fundamental re-envisioning of the United States’ role in the world,” emphasizing international cooperation.
But a desire for the United States to rejoin international institutions and agreements should not be synonymous with a belief that global cooperation will define a post-Trump world.
That belief naively and recklessly ignores a stark reality that has become all too apparent in recent years: Multilateral institutions have become one of the primary battlegrounds where the unfolding international clash of systems between democratic and authoritarian regimes is being waged.
Authoritarian countries like China and Russia know this fact well and are skilled at manipulating and exploiting international institutions to serve their own ends. The United States used to understand this fact, too, once upon a time, but it seems to have forgotten it lately.
It’s time for America to remember. It’s time for America to start using these institutions to punch back.
Hope that shared threats will outweigh geopolitical divides is not new
An American belief that international organizations could “help depoliticize controversial issues by treating these as neutral, technical challenges” underlaid the building of global institutions following World War II.
More recently, the early Obama administration viewed the “challenges of a new century” — countering violent extremism, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, economic growth, and pandemic disease — as common ground around which international stakeholders would rally.
In both instances, however, cooperative visions foundered on the shoals of geopolitical differences.
Neither in 1949 nor in 2009 could shared “problems without passports” outweigh the equally immediate threat posed by liberal, democratic norms to authoritarian regimes. As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright has written, a resurgence in geopolitical rivalry was “rooted in a clash of social models — a free world and a neo-authoritarian world — that directly affects how people live.”
That clash stemmed not only from traditional military frictions, but even more basically from the threat that open, democratic societies pose to the stability of authoritarian regimes.
Increasingly, those authoritarian regimes are striking back. Senator Elizabeth Warren has described a “belligerent and resurgent” Russia and a China that has now “weaponized its economy,” both of which seek to undermine open, democratic societies. Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders has outlined a future contested between “a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and “a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”
Consequently, while dangers like Covid-19 threaten everyone, differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes can yield contrasting responses. Take, for instance, something as basic as using technology like smartphones and apps to aid in contact tracing in the fight against Covid-19. As Vox’s Dylan Scott explains:
In the United States and across the world, smartphone applications are seen as a promising option to automate some of the work that health workers have traditionally been asked to do. Namely, they could silently track which people we’ve been in contact with, and if one of those people tests positive for Covid-19, our phone would send us a notification letting us know about our potential exposure.
But the data collection needed to do this quickly becomes entangled in concerns surrounding “digital authoritarianism,” where illiberal regimes employ such tools to “surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations” alike. The Chinese Communist Party’s use of this public health crisis to expand the scope of its surveillance and control shows that even when the world can agree on a common challenge, solutions may diverge based on a regime’s values.
Thus, even amid areas of international cooperation, a degree of vigilance is required to defend democratic interests. By no means is cooperation entirely foreclosed — which is why the Trump administration’s rejection of the Covax initiative is misguided. Nonetheless, democracies should not mistakenly believe that unalloyed cooperation in the face of every shared challenge advances their interests.
How to stand and compete from within …
While the United States cannot be starry-eyed about multilateral engagement, it also can’t afford to be cavalier as to its value — as Republican leaders increasingly are.
Not only does the United States confront a true peer competitor in China, making allies more necessary than ever, but the key domains of that competition — from trade and investment flows to advanced technologies and communications infrastructure — are already deeply enmeshed in multilateral institutions.
Authoritarian leaders understand this emerging dynamic.
Russia, long skilled in multilateral diplomacy, has amplified its efforts to shape international institutions, as President Vladimir Putin declares “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose.” Likewise, China, in seeking “reform of the global governance system,” looks to realign the world to better support the CCP’s illiberal rule at home — including its persistent surveillance of its citizens and the internment and forced “reeducation” of Uighur minorities.
Thus, rather than use cooperative mechanisms like Interpol for the intended purpose of catching criminals, Russia and China have focused on abusing the system to pursue political dissidents. Authoritarian leaders do not hesitate to twist international institutions to defend illiberal behavior beyond their own borders, such as the Russian head of the UN Counterterrorism Office striving to legitimate Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
As Beijing and Moscow lead the charge to redefine global norms, democracies must meet that challenge. From privacy rules for artificial intelligence to norms for combating transnational corruption, international standards set abroad will not remain overseas.
As the 2020 Hong Kong National Security law demonstrates, if authoritarian actions at the national level can reach into democracies around the world, so will global rules set by illiberal states. Consequently, the United States and like-minded partners must compete in international institutions to defend the values that underpin open societies.
That competitive posture does not necessitate withdrawal from international organizations, as some conservatives have preached. As Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute recently argued, “it is a ridiculous solipsism…to believe that if we stop participating in international cooperation and institutions that that cooperation stops happening.”
Instead of shifting the locus of competition to more advantageous ground, by withdrawing from these institutions, the United States merely cedes influence in the very arenas where the essential debates are occurring. Rather than isolating authoritarians to increase democratic states’ leverage, the United States is cutting itself off from the partners it needs.
So long as more universal forums, such as the UN International Telecommunications Agency, are where relevant standards are set, then active participation is called for. Abandonment only opens space for authoritarian powers to press their agendas.
This is perhaps nowhere clearer than the juxtaposition of the sidelining of Taiwan in the WHO against the March 2020 election for head of the obscure, but important, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
Despite Taiwan’s robust performance in managing Covid-19 — with only seven deaths thus far — Beijing has continued to block Taipei’s participation in WHO meetings, hampering sharing from that success. The Trump administration’s response? Only to throw up its hands and complain about China’s influence as it heads for the WHO’s door.
Conversely, in the March election to lead WIPO, the UN organization charged with protecting intellectual property, the United States chose to show up and take a stand. Recognizing the impact of Chinese-based intellectual property theft and cyberespionage, the Trump administration, in a rare moment of diplomatic engagement, rallied a near 2-1 vote in favor of the US-supported candidate against the Chinese alternative.
The message is clear: The United States leaning into a coordinated diplomatic push can make all the difference.
… and from without
Simultaneously, continuing to participate in universal institutions like the UN or WTO does not preclude pursuing new multilateral innovations to better defend democratic societies.
A decade ago, proposals for a “concert of democracies” or a “global NATO” stalled. Mistrust in the wake of George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq coupled with a fear that being seen to push the expansion of Western-style democracy would alienate rising powers from India to Brazil, scuttling such efforts. Why needlessly stir the pot in a world where cooperation on shared transnational threats seemed critical and the march of liberal democracy appeared inevitable?
However, the current international landscape differs vastly from then. New institutions to enhance democratic societies’ defensive coordination may have seemed unnecessary a decade ago but should be seen in a different light today, when authoritarian regimes pose a real challenge to the liberal model.
Thus, today’s version — what Edward Fishman of the Atlantic Council and Siddharth Mohandas of the Center for a New American Security have called “councils of democracies” — would aim to protect democracy at home, rather than justify its forcible expansion abroad. In doing so, the United States and its democratic partners should neither pull up the drawbridge from universal bodies that include authoritarian actors nor remain beholden to those institutions, as they constrain democracies’ ability to better cooperate in their own defense.
Fortunately, US Cold War strategy offers lessons on managing that balance. Importing a Cold War strategy lock, stock, and barrel for current challenges would undoubtedly be mistaken. Nevertheless, that history reveals democracies are not forced to choose between more universal organizations like the UN and more values-based ones like NATO. Rather, working at times through narrower groups grounded in a shared belief in liberalism and democracy can enhance the position of open societies in those larger bodies.
For instance, instead of being caught between abandoning the WTO — a folly few other states would join in — and continuing to struggle along with the system’s real limitations and abuses, the United States could work outside the system to build leverage within it.
Here, as Jake Sullivan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group have outlined, a forum convening democratic states to build shared norms and standards on 21st-century economic issues — digital tax, data privacy rules, etc. — could be “layered over the WTO system.”
Such a combination would not only create a space to build the norms that democratic societies need for managing 21st-century governance challenges, but also maximize their leverage within the WTO to raise standards across a global economy.
At the same time, democracies should work in values-based coalitions to promote democratic security in increasingly strategic areas of international finance, advanced technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, and battling transnational corruption. To protect democratic ideals, there will be times when it is necessary to exclude those who would seek to undermine them.
Today’s threats and circumstances may not require a global expansion of a formal alliance like NATO. Nonetheless, deepening ties between democratic societies will be essential on issues from sharing best practices on countering disinformation to maintaining information systems that appreciate values of transparency, accountability, and respect for individual privacy.
Here, the United Kingdom is an example of an early mover on what’s possible. Against rising concerns over cybersecurity and espionage from Chinese 5G leader Huawei, London has begun exploring a potential democracies-only grouping to better secure 5G communications technology, alongside other national security supply chains.
5G is only one illustration of a range of issues at the intersection of advanced technologies and the evolving digital economy where democracies must set the international rules if they are to maintain values such as privacy and free speech for their own citizens.
Thus, steps such as closer transatlantic coordination on investment security — reviewing foreign purchasers and investors in US or European companies — and export controls for new technologies emerge as essential in maintaining a lead in tomorrow’s technologies, in order to shape their use around liberal principles.
Fundamentally, as democracies increasingly compete with an economically powerful China and revanchist Russia, their best defense rests in recognizing that not only are democracies more competitive together, but that a gap in the armor in one is likely a gap for all.
A contest that cannot be wished away
In only four years, President Trump has left the United States embattled on nearly every front. An urge to trumpet international cooperation as a departure from his administration’s ceaseless antagonism is understandable.
However, in considering a world post-Trump, progressives must separate his disastrous policies from the structural reality of a growing clash between open and authoritarian societies — a contest that cannot be wished away.
Democracies must reengage multilaterally, but without losing sight that shared challenges do not necessarily beget shared solutions. Good-faith efforts at cooperation must be tempered by vigilance against authoritarian leaders who will not hesitate to use multilateral institutions to roll back and undermine liberal values in order to “make the world safe” for authoritarianism.
Given that reality, assertive measures are necessary to close ranks with other like-minded partners to defend democratic values in a more interconnected, but more contested, world. A post-Trump foreign policy may open the door for the pursuit of progressive goals; but they will have to be fought for abroad as much as at home.
Will Moreland is a foreign policy analyst focusing on US alliances and multilateralism. Previously, he served as an associate fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy. Find him on Twitter at @MorelandBW.
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