Interview: Laura Murphy on Forced Labor in Xinjiang

Evidence of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang has significantly increased over the past five years. As documented by researchers and human rights groups, the Chinese government has subjected members of these ethnic groups to widespread surveillance, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, forced sterilization, forced labor, family separation, religious discrimination, and linguistic assimilation. The accumulated evidence is strong enough for various governments, human rights groups, independent experts, and the Uyghur Tribunal to have concluded that it amounts to crimes against humanity, if not genocide

Among these abuses, forced labor has played a particularly vital role in catalyzing global condemnation, not only due to moral revulsion and potential breach of China’s international legal obligations, but also by revealing how these human rights issues tangibly relate to international actors. Consumers and shareholders alike have gradually discovered that their own consumption and investments substantially contribute to these abuses. As research has shown, the majority of global supply chains in the cotton and solar panel industries are tainted by forced labor emanating from Xinjiang. However, despite this well-documented evidence, it remains unclear to what extent international actors are willing to put people over profits, what impediments they face, and how their efforts might change the situation on the ground. 

Joining CDT to discuss the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang is Laura Murphy, Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. She is a co-author of the following reports on this topic: “Laundering Cotton: How Xinjiang Cotton Is Obscured in International Supply Chains”; “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Supply Chains”; and most recently, “Financing Genocide: Development Finance and the Crisis in the Uyghur Region.” Our interview touches on the evidence and motivations around forced labor in Xinjiang, the complexity of international supply chain due diligence, the relevance of global cases of forced labor, and the methodological challenges of documenting human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. 

China Digital Times (CDT): How and when did you begin working on forced labor in Xinjiang? Have you worked on issues related to forced labor in China before?

Laura Murphy (LM): I’ve been working on forced labor globally for over 15 years. I turned my sights to researching forced labor in Xinjiang as soon as news broke in December 2018 that the PRC had started including factory work in internment camp settings. I lived in the Uyghur Region in the 2000s, so I felt compelled to shift my focus to that region when this news emerged. But I want to be sure to mention that I worked with a team of extraordinary researchers from around the world on this report, all of whom brought their own indispensable expertise and skill sets to the work.

CDT: If you could have one person in the world read your reports on forced labor in Xinjiang, who would it be, and why? More broadly, who’s your audience for these papers? What’s their intended use?

LM: Our intended audience for our reports is a combination of corporations, investors, legislators, Uyghur community activists, and others concerned about forced labor. We try to make the reports useful for academic and general audiences alike. We hope that the reports will raise awareness of the issue, provide an evidential base for understanding forced labor in the region, exemplify the way Uyghur forced labor affects global supply chains, and influence both corporations and governments to stop supporting human rights abuses in the region.

CDT: Can you describe the range of evidence you assembled, from prisoner testimonies to state media reports and corporate PR claims? How did you assess the credibility of this evidence?

LM: In this report, we addressed four different kinds of questions with different types of evidence to provide a more complete portrait of forced labor in the cotton industry in XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. We assembled first-person testimonies of people who (or people whose family members) have been forced to work in the sector to better understand the individual experience of forced labor. We then reviewed Chinese government and corporate publicity campaigns and annual reports to understand the larger strategies that make forced labor possible in the region, and the ways the government justifies it. We then analyzed trade and customs data to see how Uyghur forced labor affects our supply chains. And then we analyzed the current legal context to understand what protections we can rely on globally to fight this.

CDT: Can you describe how “poverty alleviation” programs in Xinjiang differ from those elsewhere in China, and how despite their benevolent-sounding name they are actually coercive?

LM: While the PRC operates poverty alleviation and labor transfer programs all over China, in the Uyghur Region, refusing to participate in those government programs can be punishable by internment. It is the specter of the internment camps that makes government programs in the Uyghur Region coercive and nearly ubiquitous. It’s the worst system of contemporary forced labor I’ve ever encountered—in terms of scope, scale, and severity. 

CDT: One prominent response to accusations of forced labor has been to highlight the level of mechanization in Xinjiang’s cotton industry, arguing that this simply leaves no need for forced labor. What’s wrong with this argument?

LM: Mechanization has left farmers without jobs. This renders them “surplus labor” in the eyes of the state, and that status leaves them subject to coercive state-sponsored labor transfers. Minoritized citizens in the region are not allowed to refuse such transfers. When they hesitate, they are “educated” to “want” to go, until they finally relent. [The Laundering Cotton report addresses this question in greater depth (pp. 12-13), citing official statistics and regional differences to argue that “the majority of cotton grown in the Uyghur Region”—particularly for export—“is still hand-picked.”]

CDT: Could you draw out the capitalist underpinnings of forced labor in Xinjiang? The CCP might have been satisfied by detaining ethnic minorities and subjecting them to a pervasive surveillance state in order to neutralize a perceived threat, but why impose a further punishment of forced labor?

LM: It’s not so much capitalist as ideological, political, and cultural. Government directives clearly indicate that the purpose of the programs is to transform the Uyghur people from supposedly being “backwards” and “lazy” to being more like Han Chinese people. It is meant to “urbanize” the population and to move them to cities where the state can better control their behaviors and religious practices. It is designed to control Uyghurs and to make them docile workers in the larger project of industrialization and Sinicization of the region. 

CDT: What are some of the most interesting or overlooked findings you have come across in your research on Xinjiang forced labor so far? Has anything surprised you?

LM: I think the most surprising result of our work is actually the responses companies have provided to our findings. Many of them simply take their suppliers’ word that they are not using forced labor. Many of them choose to believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that their company is the one exception, or that their suppliers couldn’t possibly be engaged in forced labor. Many companies prefer to look away. And both companies and their auditors are often unwilling to investigate aspects of supply chains that would force them to face the reality of their complicity in forced labor, or that would put them in bad standing with the Chinese government. 

CDT: What are some ways international companies attempt to conceal their connections to Xinjiang forced labor in their supply chains, even while proclaiming to perform what on the surface sounds like due diligence?

LM: Companies often accept simple self-answered questionnaires, protocols, and codes of conduct as proof that suppliers don’t use forced labor, without doing the due diligence to investigate thoroughly. Most companies do not know where the raw materials for their products come from, and so it can be less about concealing and more about plausible deniability. Our work is aimed at removing some of the plausibility of those denials. 

CDT: Before international companies take a stand on the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang, they must determine to what extent they are actually connected to the issue. What are some impediments that international companies face in auditing their supply chains for connections to Xinjiang forced labor? Could you describe some impediments that are universal to all regions, and others that are unique to Xinjiang?

LM: The primary impediment to auditing supply chains is the auditing process itself. The audits that are currently in place are inadequate. And there’s no way to conduct a legitimate audit in the Uyghur Region or conduct interviews of Uyghurs transferred to other parts of China because they are not allowed to speak freely about their grievances. Furthermore, the Chinese government created a law last summer that prohibits people and organizations from assisting in the implementation of a foreign sanction, which has kept many auditors and Chinese companies from speaking about Xinjiang connections. This has made China a very hostile environment for those who are seeking the truth about their supply chains. 

CDT: On the power map of major international actors related to the problem of Xinjiang forced labor, there are human rights activists, governments (executive and legislative branches), apparel companies, their suppliers, consumers, etc. In your view, which among these holds the most leverage to mitigate the problem? How should that actor best use its leverage, and what is stopping them?

LM: The power to stop forced labor in the Uyghur Region lies in a complementary relationship between corporations and government. Most companies will not take due diligence and supply chain tracing seriously unless they are required to. But the only way for us to root out forced-labor-made goods is if they do so. So it is incumbent upon governments to require companies to trace their supply chains and make them public, as well as to ensure that forced-labor-made goods are not allowed to be imported. Without those laws, companies can continue to use forced-labor-made goods without any concern at all. 

CDT: Have your findings affected your own behavior as a consumer? (Of clothes, primarily, but also solar panels, if applicable.) Do you have advice for people concerned about avoiding Xinjiang cotton and other products, given the current murkiness of these supply chains?

LM: Honestly, I buy almost nothing aside from food anymore. My research has shown me that Uyghur forced labor affects supply chains far beyond clothing—electronics, household appliances, pharmaceuticals, supplements, cosmetics, spices—the list goes on and on. I research anything I do need to buy to see if there is an option that is not made in China, since the local provenance of goods is rarely identified and raw materials could often be sourced in Xinjiang. I try to buy used goods as much as I can. This is not only good for addressing forced labor, but it’s good for the planet and for my own finances. So I have made some serious life changes to accommodate what I now know. 

CDT: Xinjiang, and China more broadly, are far from being the only places in the world plagued by a significant amount of forced labor. There are an estimated eight million people living in conditions of contemporary slavery in India alone, and about 40 million people living in those conditions globally. What lessons can we learn from the successes and failures of combating forced labor in other regions, and how can these be applied to Xinjiang?

LM: This is such an important question. Unfortunately, much of what we know about combating forced labor is not particularly useful in a situation of state-sponsored forced labor at this extraordinary scale. The power China wields in the global economy and politics means that it is difficult to persuade it to end human rights abuses through the typical channels such as the UN. Companies are terrified of losing business in China, so they don’t act as swiftly to stop engaging with problematic suppliers as they usually would. We can’t work with suppliers to remediate the problem because it’s a government program. We don’t usually recommend boycotts or sanctions for forced labor⁠—we’d rather remediate the problem and improve working conditions. But this is an entirely different situation that calls for significant action on the part of governments. 

CDT: How can the successes and failures of the world’s response to forced labor in Xinjiang inform attempts to address forced labor in other parts of the world?

LM: New legislation that has been written to address the crisis in the Uyghur Region will have a long-lasting impact on what we expect of companies in terms of due diligence and supply chain transparency. Companies will no longer be able to say they can’t know where their goods come from. They’ll be required to know. That will be important to rooting out forced labor wherever it may be.

CDT: As international scrutiny of forced labor in Xinjiang continues to grow, the CCP may find ways to conceal the coercive nature of its minority policies in the region. Already, it has pushed Uyghurs and other minorities out of re-education camps as more detainees “graduate,” and labor transfer schemes disperse Xinjiang minorities to factories around the country. What implications does this evolution have for researchers’ longer-term strategy of tracking and combating Xinjiang forced labor?

LM: Researchers are constantly developing our skills at identifying programs meant to oppress minoritized citizens in the PRC. It’s not easy to do, and some of our sources do disappear on us. We have to read a lot of government and corporate documents and keep informed about new policies and speeches. We know we have to stay up to date on these programs to be able to continue the research. 

CDT: Your reports are based largely on open-source and documentary research, rather than on-the-ground fieldwork. Other researchers have conducted similar groundbreaking investigations on human rights in Xinjiang using publicly available data and without needing to be physically in China (Adrian Zenz, Shawn Zhang, Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing, et al). Using these sorts of open-source, remote methodologies, what are some other ways to investigate Xinjiang forced labor, beyond what you have already done in your reports? What are some research questions that sound most interesting to you?

LM: Many of us researching this issue wish we could go to China to conduct research, but it is not possible at this time. In fact, just recently, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs accused us of not doing any on-the-ground research—it was laughable because of course we would prefer to go back to the Uyghur Region and have the freedom to talk to people without fear of repercussions for ourselves or for the people we talk with, or for our own friends and family members. Several of the people you named have been banned from the country. Some others have been beaten up or detained while doing research on this issue. An auditing firm was kicked out of the country. I’d love to be able to talk to workers who have experienced forced labor in the Uyghur Region. I’d be interested in going to see factories and spending time with companies that claim that they have created labor recruitment strategies that circumvent coercive state-sponsored programs. But I’m not allowed to do those things. For now, we use all of the information available to us online. This is what makes researching a human rights crisis in the 21st century both incredibly challenging, but also much more feasible than in times past. 

CDT: What scholars, NGOs, or other sources do you recommend our readers consult to better understand Xinjiang forced labor and the complexity of global supply chains involving China?

LM: I think Darren Byler, Adrian Zenz, Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing, and Amy Lehr are the stars in this arena. Their research has really inspired and assisted ours.

It’s also important to note that all of the work I do is conducted with a team, of varying membership, and of varying interest in being named. Nyrola Elimä is my co-author on nearly all of the work I do, but there are many others who also work on these projects who prefer to remain anonymous. But it’s important to me that I make it clear that I do not do this work alone.


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