Why Kodak apologized to China over an Instagram post

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Originally published by CNET on July 21, 2021

The Xinjiang region of China has become an increasingly tense topic for both world leaders and international businesses. Over a million Uyghur Muslims have reportedly been detained in “reeducation” labor camps within the territory. China has become more sensitive to accusations of human rights abuse and genocide, as the US State Department declared in January, and often reacts aggressively to such charges.

Kodak has become the latest company to navigate the quagmire of expectations set by the West and China. The company briefly published a photo series from Xinjiang on Instagram, before quickly removing the photos and offering an apology after a backlash from some Chinese users. At issue was a caption written by Patrick Wack, the photographer behind the series, which called the region an “Orwellian nightmare.” 

Wack visited the region numerous times between 2015 and 2019, and his photographs feature in an upcoming book called Dust. Kodak, whose cameras Wack uses for his work, published a selection of his photos on its Instagram account, linking to Wack’s account — where people could read the following caption discussing the Xinjiang region:

“In recent years, the region has been at the centre of an international outcry following the mass-incarceration of its Uyghur population and other Muslim minorities. This body of work captures a visual narrative of the region and is a testimony to its abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia.”

The nationalist section of China’s population, egged on by state rhetoric and local media, see Western criticism of Xinjiang as either invented or exaggerated for the purpose of holding down China’s rise. International firms are increasingly being made to choose between customers in the West and its growing, lucrative customer base in China. Companies like Nike have been pressured by  the West to cleanse their supply chains of cotton from Xinjiang and criticized in China for actually doing so. Swedish company H&M saw its sales drop in China after it spoke out against using cotton from the region. 

Wack’s post became a huge topic of conversation on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. “Don’t buy Kodak,” one post read. “Kodak supports the works of photographers who deliberately smear China’s suppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.” The response from Chinese officials is unclear, but Chinese state-owned publications ran stories critical of Kodak. “It’s not uncommon for the West to hype about the Xinjiang issue under the instigation of anti-China forces headed by the United States,” reads a story in the Global Times. Kodak pulled the photos days later and released a statement apologizing “for any misunderstanding or offence the post may have caused.” 

Kodak was more deferential in a separate statement it released on Chinese social media platform WeChat. “For a long time, Kodak has maintained a good relationship with the Chinese government and has been in close cooperation with various government departments. … We will keep ourselves in check and correct ourselves, taking this as an example of the need for caution,” reads the statement, translated by Hong Kong Free Press.   

Wack was disappointed in Kodak’s statement, but doesn’t think any other corporation would have acted much differently. “We have created a globalized world where no company with international ambition can reasonably give up on the China market,” he said to CNET. “Would any other major photo company, or multinational company, behave differently and give up on the China market?”

William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at the Chinese Network of Human Rights Defenders, is more critical. “This is just another pathetic example of how companies are willing to censor themselves, even with an ongoing cultural genocide, just to maintain access to the Chinese market,” he said. 

“Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their business operations and for a company like Kodak, this includes respecting the right to freedom of expression for those who use its film.”

Abuses of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population have been increasingly publicized over the past few years. In the hopes of repressing separatist sentiment, Chinese authorities have detained over 1 million Uyghurs in “reeducation camps.” The state has been accused of using IUDs, birth control and sterilization to cut down the birth rate. In January the US State Department declared China’s treatment of Uyghur’s “genocide.”

“The Chinese government should realize that it is playing with a double-edged sword by pressuring companies on Xinjiang,” Nee said. “On the one hand, most companies will obediently submit in the short run. But on the other hand, these cases attract widespread attention from policymakers and Western consumers about the risks of being tied to the Chinese market.”

Kodak didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional comment. 

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