Eyewitness: China uses Carlsberg’s beer to repress Uyghurs

Carlsberg has 85 percent of the beer market in the Chinese province where Muslims have been systematically imprisoned for refusing to drink alcohol. Experts criticize Carlsberg for participating in the Chinese repression of the Uyghur people.
Carlsberg has 85 percent of the beer market in the Chinese province where Muslims have been systematically imprisoned for refusing to drink alcohol. Experts criticize Carlsberg for participating in the Chinese repression of the Uyghur people.
In cooperation with TV2
Research: Nyrola Elimä | All illustrations: Ditte Lander Ahlgren
Chief editor: Adam Dyrvig Tatt | Responsible editor-in-chief: Jesper Nymark

Drink alcohol or go to jail.

10,000 kilometers away from Denmark, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, this is a choice that many Uyghurs have been facing since the 2010s.

This pressure comes from the Chinese government, who over the past decade has thrown Muslim people into internment camps, subjected them to forced sterilization and mass surveillance due to their culture and faith.

Leaks and testimonies show that alcohol has played an important role: If you drink alcohol, you go free; if you choose Islam and say no thanks, you may pay the price.

For roughly the same amount of time, from 2015 onwards, Danish brewing giant Carlsberg has been operating in the same province producing the local beer, Wusu Beer.

An operation that experts believe the Chinese government has used to suppress the approximately 12 million population of Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.

This is based on extensive research of the open Chinese media, leaked documents and testimonies from Uyghur refugees, conducted by Danwatch in cooperation with TV2.

It is the equivalent of a Danish butcher filming a bacon commercial with Orthodox Jews dancing and chewing pork in Israel.
Rune Steenberg
Postdoc Palacký University Olomouc 

In particular, experts are criticizing Carlsberg’s sponsorship of a beer festival in a province where alcohol is used as a means to establish whether someone is a radical fundamentalist or not.

“Carlsberg is aiding the Chinese government with their repression in Xinjiang,” says Rune Steenberg, one of Europe’s leading Uyghur researchers, who has lived, researched and conducted anthropological fieldwork in Xinjiang.

Carlsberg declined to be interviewed. In an email response, Carlsberg’s communications director wrote that Wusu’s role is “limited to sponsorship, including tastings, advertising and the sale of beer during the festival”.

Carlsberg’s communications director also stated that there is no evidence that their sponsorship of the beer festival is “suppressing the indigenous Uyghur culture”.

Wusu Beer festival

For the past eight years, Carlsberg has owned five breweries in the Xinjiang province, which is considered one of the most controversial and cut-off places in the world.

One of the breweries is located in Wusu town, which hosts the annual Wusu Beer Festival.

In the programs and photographs online that Danwatch and TV2 sourced, the festival resembles one in Denmark: Concerts with popular musicians and parades through the city.

All baring the Wusu Beer logo.

But as with everything else in Xinjiang, this kind of festival must be seen in the context in which it is held, explains anthropologist Adrian Zenz, who helped leak the “Xinjiang Police Files,” which revealed the Chinese state’s repression of the province’s Uyghur people.

“An activity like a beer festival is designed to pull people away from their religion, rules and way of life”, says Adrian Zenz.

What is also problematic is that the festival mixes traditional Uyghur dance and costume, originating from a Muslim tradition in which alcohol is forbidden, with beer, explains Rune Steenberg.

“It is provocative and disrespectful”, says Rune Steenberg.

“It is the equivalent of a Danish butcher filming a bacon commercial with Orthodox Jews dancing and chewing pork in Israel”.

To understand this, you need to understand what is happening in Xinjiang.

More than one million Uyghurs have been interned in Xinjiang.

Repression in Xinjiang

In recent years, reports of the repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have become widespread.

Especially from 2017 onwards, reports and leaks have confirmed the systematic persecution of the Uyghur people in particular, who make up around 45 percent of the population in the province.

Most central to Beijing’s approach has been the creation of hundreds of detention camps, where it is likely that up to a million people have been incarcerated.

According to several accounts, they have been subjected to torture, rape, forced sterilization and indoctrination to the ‘correct Chinese mindset’.

Internment has meant that families have been split up, and Uyghur children have been sent to Chinese orphanages where they are taught to love their Chinese homeland and its government.

Thousands of mosques and religious symbols have been demolished, and the Chinese government is closely monitoring the inhabitants of Xinjiang.

What they do, where they are and who they associate with.

Director of the organization Nomogaia, Kendyl Salcito, who co-authored two reports on Western business relations in Xinjiang, calls China’s treatment of Uyghurs “a silent annihilation”.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that the type of repression that is going on in Xinjiang is not of the type that we saw during the Srebrenica massacre or the genocide in Rwanda. This is not a sudden outbreak of violence. This is a slow, systematic, deliberate cleansing of culture and people”, says Kendyl Salcito.

The US, several governments and NGOs share this view and have called China’s treatment of the Uyghur people a genocide.

In September 2022, the UN involved itself and after much rigmarole, they concluded that China has committed human rights violations so serious that they amount to crimes against humanity.

Religious extremism

China has maintained that all accusations are “the lie of the century”.

Instead, the Communist Party says, it is fighting religious extremism and poverty in the predominantly Muslim province.

In practice, this has led to effectively outlawing the Muslim culture and lifestyle in a province where more than half of its population is devoted to Islam, explains Adrian Zenz.

“If Islam says that you can’t drink alcohol or eat pork, then the state will make people do exactly that under the guise of fighting religious extremism”, says Adrian Zenz.

According to Adrian Zenz, the consequence is that Uyghurs now live with the risk of being sent to an internment camp if they refuse to participate in events that the state expects them to.

“They know they can be labeled as religious extremists. That’s how the system works. It’s a police state”, says Adrian Zenz.

175 jailed for not drinking alcohol

Leaked documents, the testimonies of escaped Uyghurs and the Chinese media confirm the same story: Uyghurs have been widely detained or thrown into prison for growing a slightly too long beard, for praying, for fasting, and even: for not wanting to drink alcohol.

Alcohol has played a major role in China’s criminalization of Islam in Xinjiang, says anthropologist Rune Steenberg.

“Alcohol has undoubtedly been an active tool in the oppression of the Uyghurs. Especially in creating an environment where people have not been able to remain Uyghur in any strong expression without being labeled as an Islamist or radical fundamentalist”, says Rune Steenberg

An excerpt from a leaked dataset of people detained from the early 2010s up to 2018 in the Konasheher area of Xinjiang, which Danwatch and TV2 were given exclusive access to by Adrian Zenz, illustrates the role of alcohol in the province.

The dataset, which covers only a fraction of all detainees in Xinjiang, shows that 175 people were in detention camps on the grounds that, among other things, they did not drink alcohol.

One of them was Memeteli Turghur, who was detained because he did not smoke or drink, according to the dataset.

Below are 10 people who have been imprisoned for refusing to drink alcohol.

10 people imprisoned for refusing to drink alcohol

Up to one million people are believed to have been incarcerated in the Xinjiang internment camps. Some of them for not drinking alcohol. Read about some of them here:


Erkrem RoziAmong other accusations: “He has not sold cigarettes or alcohol since he opened his business. In June 2016, the authorities ensured that cigarettes and alcohol were sold in the shop. He protested.”


Memeteli Turghun“Category 5: Religious extremism, attends the mosque’s five daily prayers, does not smoke or drink, listens to recordings of religious material illegally”.


Ahmet BextiAmongother accusations: “Listened to Aniwar Kasim’s lecture on ‘No smoking, no drinking’ in the summer of 2013.”


Razigül A.Among other accusations: “listened to Aniwar Kasmus’s speech on “those who drink and smoke at home and cook are not halal. The prayers of those who smoke and drink will not be answered.”


Memet Tursun IslamAmongother accusations: “Video on his phone about “halal and non-halal: smoking and alcohol are not halal”.


Yasinjan MahmutAmong other accusations: “listened to Pa and Reding’s lecture on not drinking, not smoking.”


Abdurehim BawudinAmong other accusations: “From 2000 to 2016, he was the “prayer caller” for the mosque in the fifth division of the former 13 villages. He didn’t drink or smoke.”


Alimjan KasimAmong other accusations “Strong religious environment, has extremist thoughts, will not meet people who smoke and drink or avoids them.”


W. EliAmong other accusations: “Has religious extremist ideas, does not smoke, does not drink, prays five times a day.”


Elijan MemetAmong other accusations: “held religious extremist views, used to drink, smoke and gamble, suddenly stopped drinking and smoking in 2014.”

Source: Xinjiang Police Files and exclusive dataset from Adrian Zenz

Eyewitness: “They looked really scared”

Uyghur children’s author Abduweli Ayup has also seen alcohol used against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Danwatch and TV2 visited him in the Norwegian city of Bergen to discuss what he witnessed on a summer day back in 2015 in a suburb of Kashgar, located in Xinjiang.

In the middle of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day – 20 people had lined up in a horseshoe to take part in a drinking competition.

“What’s going on here, I thought. Normally you wouldn’t see people eating on the street during Ramadan and it is inconceivable that people would drink alcohol in public”, says Abduweli Ayup about the incident.

It was not long before he realized what was actually happening. The competition, he says, was organized by official ombudsmen and the military, and the participants were mainly from the minority: Uyghurs like himself.

At the end of the horseshoe was a Chinese woman with a megaphone, uttering words of encouragement to the drinking crowd.

“You are brave, you are defying religious extremism”, echoes Abduweli Ayup.

Behind the woman were paramilitaries and police officers with weapons, and Abduweli Ayup could sense that the men drinking felt threatened and coerced.

“They looked really scared. Many tried to hide their faces, and some of them could hardly hold their glass properly because their hands were shaking so much. It looked like they were torturing themselves,” Abuweli Ayup told Danwatch and TV2.

“It wasn’t like they were drinking beer, but poison”.

A similar session was reported in Xinjiang during the same summer, and several videos online show allegedly similar instances in the province.

According to Abduweli Ayup, the videos are similar to what he witnessed.

He also said that the beer they were drinking was Wusu Beer.

Sell alcohol or close your business

The dataset of the detained Uyghurs, which Danwatch and TV2 have access to, shows that people have been imprisoned because they would not sell alcohol or cigarettes in their shops.

In 2015, Berlingske newspaper reported a similar practice.

In the small town of Aktesh, the Communist Party had launched a campaign to “weaken Islam”, an unnamed local party secretary told Berlingske.

According to the newspaper, this campaign dictated that shopkeepers in the village were now required to stock at least five different brands of alcohol and cigarettes or risk “the closure of their shop, having their business suspended and facing legal action”.

Experts: Carlsberg must have known

In 2015, the same year that the Chinese government ran its ‘sell alcohol’ campaign in Aktesh, Carlsberg bought full ownership of the Wusu Beer brand in Xinjiang. In a report on Chinese state television, a journalist states that Wusu has 85 percent of the market in the province.

Carlsberg has been critizised for being present and doing business at a time when the stranglehold on Muslim minorities intensified.

According to Adrian Zenz and Rune Steenberg, Carlsberg and Wusu Beer must have been aware of the state pressure to drink alcohol.

“They know that there are many Uyghur shops and restaurants that did not sell alcohol until seven years ago. Wusu is one of the beers that has been forced into Uyghur businesses. And because so many businesses have been forced to sell alcohol, we can assume that Carlsberg has profited from this,” says Rune Steenberg.

Adrian Zenz believes there is a possibility that prior to 2019, Carlsberg may not have been aware of how their beer was used by the Chinese authorities.

But after then, it must have been obvious to them:

“In 2023, all companies are very aware of the situation in Xinjiang and that it is impossible to distinguish between coercion and non-coercion in the province”, says Adrian Zenz.

Carlsberg’s billion-dollar business in Xinjiang: 

  • In 2004, Carlsberg acquired a 34.5 percent stake in Xinjiang Wusu Brewery Co., Ltd.
  • In 2009, they increased to 63.5 percent
  • In 2015, they took full ownership
  • It is unclear how successful Wusu is as a business.
  • In a report on Chinese state TV, the journalist says that Wusu has 85 percent of the market in Xinjiang.
  • Carlsberg informed Danwatch and TV2 that they never report figures at market level. Berlingske has previously reported that Carlsberg has indicated that Wusu in 2020 accounted for a quarter of the total Chinese business with a turnover of 9.9 billion Danish krone.
  • Carlsberg told Danwatch that in 2020 they restructured their activities in China, which meant that “our Chinese activities (including Wusu) were transferred to the listed company Chongqing. As a result, we have since been limited in what we can say about China as we have to comply with the laws and regulations in all countries”.

No conclusive answers

Danwatch and TV2 asked Carlsberg how they felt about having such a large market share in a province where Muslims are sanctioned for not drinking alcohol.

We also asked them how they felt about that, according to an eyewitness, their beer has been used for what Abduweli Ayup considers to be involuntary drinking.

Carlsberg did not provide specific answers to these questions.

Carlsberg’s communications director writes – in general – TV 2 and Danwatch have not provided “any facts or evidence to support these allegations”.

“None of these accounts contain any evidence of specific actions allegedly taken by our local company. Since we received this request, we have thoroughly investigated all allegations and we have not found any evidence to support the claims”, it reads.

Carlsberg’s communications director also writes that they take human rights very seriously.

“Carlsberg is committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights wherever we operate in the world.Therefore, we have a comprehensive human rights policy that explicitly prohibits the use of any form of forced or compulsory labour in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)”, writes Carlsberg’s Director of Communications.

Impossible to know if they are there voluntarily

The question of coercion or non-coercion is crucial to understanding what is going on in the otherwise closed province, both researchers point out.

Although Beijing announced back in 2019 that all detainees had now been “re-educated”, Telegraph investigations, interviews with former prisoners and police leaks show that many of them were simply sent on to another prison, house arrest or into forced labour.

There are also reports that camps still exist in remote locations, while surveillance of Uyghurs has intensified.

Abduweli Ayup is familiar with this kind of surveillance. After 2014, he found that surveillance cameras were absolutely here, there and everywhere.

“They could see who you were, your demeanor and where you were going,” says Abduweli Ayup.

The latent threat of imprisonment and constant surveillance means, according to the researchers, that it is no longer possible to distinguish who participates voluntarily in public events or not. This applies to the summer day in 2015 in the suburb of Kashgar, where Abduweli Ayup saw Muslims drinking Wusu beer in the middle of Ramadan.

From the fear of getting into trouble, he did not ask these men why they were drinking, but he is convinced they did not do it voluntarily.

Rune Steenberg believes that this is the most likely scenario, as drinking in public spaces used to be associated with social exclusion.

“Those who wanted to drink did it in secret”, says Rune Steenberg,

But, he adds, this does not mean that they have been directly threatened to drink.

“Some may have chosen to participate to be seen in a better light by the authorities. It could lead to promotion. Either way, I would assume that they don’t like drinking in public”, explains Rune Steenberg.

TV 2 and Danwatch have not found any evidence to suggest that Carlsberg and Wusu were aware of the kind of events that Abduweli Ayup witnessed in 2015.

“Carlsberg supports repression”

On the other hand, says Rune Steenberg, Carlsberg should know how their beer could be used at the large beer festival in Wusu.

Now, “The repression is so well known that it must be obvious that the authorities are recording who is participating and that it is impossible to know who is participating voluntarily”, says Rune Steenberg.

Therefore, he also believes that Carlsberg is aiding China’s repression of the Uyghurs.

He points out that Carlsberg’s Wusu beer is everywhere in Uyghur shops that were never before willing to sell alcohol, that their beer is used in public drinking events like the one witnessed by Abduweli Ayup, and that they sponsor a beer festival that many locals oppose but are forced to attend for fear of imprisonment.

“Consequently, Wusu and Carlsberg are deliberately creating an environment where human rights violations take place”, says Rune Steenberg,

Carlsberg has not responded to the accusation that the Wusu beer festival is cultivating an environment where human rights violations take place.

Wusu Beer holds 85 percent of the market in Xinjiang.

Freedom is better than sunshine

In Bergen, outside the window snow is falling. It is cold, the sky is grey, and so too is Abduweli Ayup’s relationship to Carlsberg.

“I am really disappointed because Denmark is my neighbour. Countries in Europe and Scandinavia always talk about the environment and human rights, but a thousand kilometers away Carlsberg is aiding the oppression of the Uyghur people,” says Abduweli Ayup.

He turns his gaze to the window and looks out at the snow-covered landscape. The weather in Norway is good, he says. The sun does not shine so much but it’s okay.

“I come from a place where there is a lot of sunshine, but no freedom”, says Abduweli Ayup.

“Now, I have almost no sun, but I have freedom. Sometimes you have more of one thing and less of another. I have freedom”.

Undersøgelsen delt op i artikler
Denne undersøgelse har fået et efterspil


Gå ikke glip af den næste afsløring

Nyhedsbrev sign-up