A Uighur woman picking up school children rides past a picture showing China's President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uighur elders at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region, September 20, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

“I’m a bit confused. Could someone explain to me what happened? How are H&M and Nike discriminating against Xinjiang?” one Chinese social media user wrote on the platform Weibo.

This week, Chinese authorities opened the floodgates for people to slam the Swedish clothing brand H&M over its September 2020 pledge to stop using cotton sourced from Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China. The call to boycott H&M prompted similar cries to stop buying products from other international brands, such as Nike and Gap, that have joined an initiative to stop using Xinjiang cotton.

For the past several years, the word “Xinjiang” and the human rights abuses documented across the region had been taboo on the Chinese internet. Discussing events in Xinjiang or even just mentioning the name could get your post removed or your account suspended. Netizens thus used “XJ,” “new jiang” (“xin” means new in Chinese), and “area where cantaloupes are produced” to try to circumvent censorship. But due to the effectiveness of state repression, many simply remained unaware of the ongoing human rights nightmare faced by Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Now, suddenly, “Xinjiang” is everywhere on the Chinese internet. While most netizens have focused on expressing outrage at Western brands, some are asking questions about Xinjiang and criticizing the government’s policies there.

“I want to know what is going on with Xinjiang cotton!” “Isn’t it forced labor and religious discrimination? What is really going?” “Don’t just support Xinjiang cotton, please also support Xinjiang people! Support Xinjiang people staying in hotels, support Xinjiang people traveling abroad,” netizens wrote on Weibo.

As someone who grew up in this heavily censored country, learning about prohibited issues was mostly an accident: you come across a banned documentary, or run into someone who tells you a personal story of suffering that is the opposite of what you learned in school or from the media. Then you become curious, and you dig deeper. I hope this Xinjiang cotton “storm” is such a moment for many people in China, especially the youth.