Report Shows Scale of Forced Labor in Xinjiang Cotton Industry

A new report from the Center for Global Policy has revealed that systematic forced labor has been employed in a much greater proportion of the Xinjiang cotton trade than previously thought. In the report, researcher Adrian Zenz finds that more than 500,000 people have been forced to pick cotton as part of the Chinese government’s poverty alleviation campaign. Other recent research has exposed widespread abuses in the sprawling detention camps as well as the use of digital surveillance and algorithmic policing to monitor and arbitrarily arrest Uyghurs. This latest research focuses on the systematic abuse of people who aren’t put in the detention camps—often older Uyghurs. The Guardian’s Helen Davidson reported on key findings from CGP’s report:

The Xinjiang region produces more than 20% of the world’s cotton and 84% of China’s, but according to a new report released on Tuesday by the Center for Global Policy there is significant evidence that it is “tainted” by human rights abuses, including suspected forced labour of Uighur and other Turkic Muslim minority people.

[…] This year the US imposed sanctions and cotton import restrictions on suppliers controlled by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – a paramilitary production entity which produces a third of Xinjiang’s cotton – over human rights concerns. But according to the report, those concerns extend beyond the XPCC to the whole region. It recommended the US government expand its import restrictions to cover all Xinjiang cotton, not just that produced by XPCC regions.

[…] While mechanised harvesting in XPCC regions has increased to around 83%, areas in the south of Xinjiang – which produce a far larger share of the cotton – remain heavily reliant on manual picking. And while the number of workers brought in from other provinces for the harvest season had dropped, the report found the proportion of local ethnic minority labourers had increased dramatically.

It estimated 570,000 people came through three minority-heavy prefectures alone – Aksu, Hotan, and Kashgar – and that labor programs in other ethnic minority regions as well as prison labor would probably add hundreds of thousands to the figure. [Source]

Mass incarceration and mass employment have often operated side-by-side in Xinjiang’s “re-education camps,” long defended by authorities as being “vocational training” centers, part of a long-running crackdown on Uyghur religiosity and identity that since 2018 has seen an industrial expansion. A report earlier this year from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed that re-education camps in Xinjiang are not the only places where Uyghurs’ rights are abused.

In 2014, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious poverty alleviation campaign with the goal of “ending poverty” in China by the end of this year. At the end of November, officials announced that the country had achieved that target. Paired with the issue of widespread poverty in Xinjiang is a manpower shortage in its cotton fields. The CGP report notes that Party cadres under pressure to meet “poverty alleviation” quotas have used forced labor transfers and the coerced employment of Uyghurs outside of re-education camps to fill grueling jobs on cotton plantations.

In an extensive report for the BBC, John Sudworth reported on the link between poverty and forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton fields, noting a patronizing attitude towards Uyghur culture implicit in the government’s view of their work ethic:

Often from poor farming or herding families, more than two million of them have been mobilised for work, in many cases after first being put through short bouts of “military-style” job training.

[…] In July this year, the US based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded that it was “possible” that minorities were also being sent to pick cotton, but “more information is needed.”

The new documents found by Dr Zenz not only provide that information, they also reveal a clear political purpose behind this mass transfer of minorities into the fields.

An August 2016 notice issued by the Xinjiang regional government on the management of cotton pickers instructs officials to “strengthen their ideological education and ethnic unity education”.

One propaganda report found by Dr Zenz suggests that the cotton fields present an opportunity to transform the “deep-rooted, lazy thinking” of poor, rural villagers by showing them that “labour is glorious”.

Such phrases echo the Chinese state’s view of Uighur lifestyles and customs as acting as a barrier to modernisation. [Source]


Despite extensive recent reporting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prosecutors with the International Criminal Court this week announced they would not pursue an investigation into China’s mass detention of Muslims brought forth by two Uyghur activist groups in March. The New York Times’ Javier Hernandez reported that because the alleged crimes took place in China, which is not a party to the court, it would not investigate allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity there:

The abuses described “have been committed solely by nationals of China within the territory of China,” said a report by the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia.

[…] In addition to abuses against Muslims inside China’s borders, the groups had also lobbied the court to investigate Beijing for pursuing the repatriation of thousands of Uighurs through unlawful arrests in or deportation from other countries, including Cambodia and Tajikistan.

In its report on Monday, the court said there was “no basis to proceed at this time” because there did not appear to be enough evidence to show that Chinese officials had committed a crime.

“Not all conduct which involves the forcible removal of persons from a location necessarily constitutes the crime of forcible transfer or deportation,” the court said. [Source]

Last month, U.S. multinationals lobbied to “water down” a bill in congress that would severely restrict the importation of goods made in Xinjiang on the basis of pervasive forced labor there.

As evidence of massive rights abuses in Xinjiang has accumulated, a growing number of individuals have chosen to speak out. Last week, following revelations of Huawei’s role in developing the algorithmic systems used to select Uyghurs for detention, French national football striker Antoine Griezmann publicly cancelled a Huawei sponsorship deal, severing his ties with the company in a move to raise awareness about China’s repression of Uyghurs. At least one Huawei executive has reportedly also announced his resignation from the company in response:

Also this week, an Orthodox rabbi serving as the chief rabbi of a union of British Orthodox Jewish synagogues published an op-ed in The Guardian declaring he could “no longer remain silent about the plight of the Uighurs. See also prior coverage of Xinjiang’s re-education camps or the algorithmic policing system built by Huawei and Megvii used to detain and imprison Uyghurs, via CDT.


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