As countries around the world reckon with widespread protests against centuries of systemic racism, high-profile companies have found themselves scrambling to adjust to the new paradigm.
Some have scrubbed long-overlooked offensive mascots, while many others have used the platform afforded by major brand recognition to voice their support for the movement.
But even as well known brands like Nike, Arsenal Football Club, and New Belgium Brewery have declared their support for racial justice in America and Europe, history shows they have profited from—or at the very least, turned a blind eye to—racially motivated oppression abroad, a pattern activists are describing as a hypocritical double standard.
When Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin moved to Myanmar’s capital of Yangon from Rakhine State at 6-years-old, he said nobody, including his teachers, would call him by his name.
“They called me kalar instead of using my name,” he said, referring to a derogatory term used for people with dark skin, or of South Asian descent in Myanmar.
Years later, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, would embark on a campaign of brutal violence against the Rohingya ethnic minority in Rakhine, in what has been described in many quarters as a genocide or ethnic cleansing.
So when companies like the San Francisco-based web services firm Cloudflare and Colorado’s hip New Belgium Brewery, which have business connections to the Tatmadaw, declared that they stand for racial justice, Nay San Lwin was unconvinced.
“Black Lives Matter is very popular in the world, and they just use this cause as a tool to hide their violations. Supporting the military and this genocidal government in Myanmar is a serious human rights violation,” he told VICE News in a recent interview.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted across the United States after an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes after Floyd was already handcuffed. The protests demanding racial justice soon spread to other cities in the U.S., and then around the world.
Nay San Lwin said he stands in solidarity with Black protesters demanding equal rights, but isn’t so sure corporations voicing similar support truly care about racial justice. Rather, he suggested, it’s become necessary for companies to support BLM, or risk social backlash that could hurt their profits.
Nike, a multi-billion-dollar American apparel company, released a widely shared anti-racism video and added a section to its website detailing how the company “stand[s] up for equality.” But just months ago, an investigation by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) linked Nike, Apple, and other prominent brands to Uighur slave labor.
The ASPI report said that as criticism mounts over the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the process of “re-educating” them has shifted to a new phase—an “exploitative, government-led labour transfer scheme” that includes forced labor, constant surveillance, and political indoctrination.
“A factory in eastern China that manufactures shoes for US company Nike is equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes,” the report says, claiming that the factory is one of Nike’s largest suppliers. The report also identified four factories in Apple’s supply chain.
The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group living in Xinjiang, China who have been systematically rounded up by the hundreds of thousands and placed in concentration camps by Chinese authorities in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them to Chinese culture. The ongoing oppression of the Uighurs, including revelations just this week that China has allegedly taken shocking steps to cut birth rates among the group, has also been described as ethnic cleansing and a form of genocide.
In a recent statement to VICE News, Nike said it is “committed to fostering an inclusive culture and standing for equality around the world,” and is “very concerned about reports of forced labor.”
“We have also been conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uighur or other ethnic minorities from [Xinjiang],” the statement said.
In its comments to Vice, Nike repeated some of the same denials from its initial response to the controversy, maintaining that the factory in question stopped recruiting employees from Xinjiang in 2019 and that all employees “had the ability to end or extend their contracts at any time.”
But a visit to the factory by the Washington Post this year found many Uighur women still working at the factory, living in prison-like, racially segregated conditions. One worker confirmed that they cannot return home. The authors of the ASPI report accused the company of “avoiding its responsibility” by relying on assurances from the Chinese factory.
Apple, which was linked to Uighur forced labor in the same report, did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the English Premier League’s Arsenal Football Club, owned by American billionaire Stan Kroenke, has also been outwardly vocal in its support of racial justice. The club, like many in the league, replaced players’ names on their jerseys with the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” and also released a statement specifically supporting the players who had spoken out in support of the movement.
But the club had a very different response last year when Muslim player Mesut Özil spoke out against the oppression of Uighurs.
The remarks prompted China, which has become a major market for international sports teams, to temporarily refuse to broadcast Arsenal games, and the club hastily sought to distance itself from Özil.
“The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics,” a statement read at the time.
An Arsenal spokesperson told VICE News in a recent email that the club is committed to encouraging “inclusion and diversity” and “making the club somewhere everyone feels comfortable,” but the club’s stance on the Uighur issue does not appear to have changed.
“We are always careful not to step into political areas but understand this is a stance which is open to interpretation. However we can assure you our aim is to drive inclusion and equality across everything we do,” the club said.
Uighur activist Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uighurs, called it a “double standard,” and accused companies of “turning a blind eye” to the largest case of racial oppression since the Holocaust.
“For Chinese money, most of these companies are selling their soul and moral values,” Abbas told VICE News, adding that the companies “have not demonstrated that they truly care about racial justice, only about political expediency.”
Abbas said she supports and admires the Black Lives Matter movement, but added such a movement would not even be possible in an authoritarian country like China.
Cloudflare and New Belgium Brewery are also among the companies that have made statements supporting racial justice, despite being associated with the Myanmar military, whose campaign against the Rohingya has left hundreds of thousands in refugee camps across the border with Bangladesh.
Cloudflare has touted its Galileo Project, claiming that the company is invested in protecting “vulnerable groups” and supporting those who fight for racial justice. In 2017, the company withdrew its services from white supremacist website, Daily Stormer. But in Myanmar, Cloudflare provides cybersecurity services to webpages affiliated with the Myanmar military, including one belonging to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who stands accused of spearheading the alleged genocide of the Rohingya.
Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders were banned from Facebook for using the platform to incite violence against the Rohingya, and the Cloudflare-protected website has been used for similar purposes in the past.
Cloudflare did not respond to requests for comment.
New Belgium, meanwhile, advertises itself as a “force for good,” but that didn’t stop it from allowing itself to be sold to Japanese conglomerate Kirin, despite concerns at the time over its joint venture with the Tatmadaw to sell beer in Myanmar. In 2017, Kirin even donated money directly to the Tatmadaw during its campaign of violence against the Rohingya.
When contacted by VICE News, New Belgium shrugged off the association, saying New Belgium “has never had any connection to” Kirin’s operations in Myanmar, despite being wholly owned by Kirin.
“New Belgium believes deeply in respect for all human rights and we share community concerns about the human rights situation in Myanmar,” the company said, adding that Kirin has announced it will conduct an independent review of its business operations in Myanmar.
Kirin’s announcement came some months after New Belgium’s sale, and after years of pressure from rights groups like Burma Campaign UK (BCUK). BCUK’s director, Mark Farmaner, said a company purporting to support Black Lives Matter while partnering with the Tatmadaw is “total hypocrisy.”
“You don’t do business with the Burmese military if you genuinely care about racial equality. The Burmese military have spent decades trying to wipe out different races in Burma,” he said via email. “These companies might be claiming they think black lives matter but they obviously don’t think Rohingya lives matter.”