Tourism Push and Continued Labor Coercion Mark New Phase in Xinjiang Repression

Exactly one year ago, a consortium of media outlets released the Xinjiang Police Files, a cache of tens of thousands of files showing images of Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang’s concentration camps and manuals for enforcing their subjugation. In the year since then, despite multiple high-level U.N. reports documenting forced labor and “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang that “may constitute […] crimes against humanity,” the CCP has continued to enforce coercive policies in the region with impunity. Recent articles and reports document a new phase of repression in Xinjiang, one marked by a veneer of normalcy and the normalization of widespread forced labor.

The latest facade of this new normal is an influx of tourism to Xinjiang. At ChinaFile, Eva Xiao reported on the dramatic increase in government spending on tourism as a method to control Xinjiang’s culture and remold its image:

The Xinjiang government’s efforts to expand tourism and the resulting uptick in spending are an important part of what appears to be a new stage in Beijing’s strategy to secure control over Xinjiang and reshape the region’s culture and inhabitants to resemble the Han-dominant parts of the country.

In government procurement documents and Chinese state media, tourism is presented as a way to “culturally replenish” Xinjiang with traditions and customs from other parts of China, as well as a channel for instilling in local residents a unitary Chinese identity. And as foreign reporting on the region declines, tourism is becoming ever more important and influential in shaping how people outside of the region view Xinjiang, especially after more than five years of draconian policies including mass internment and incarceration.

According to official figures, in 2022, the Xinjiang Department of Culture and Tourism increased its spending budget by more than 90 percent compared to the year prior. This year, the department is planning to spend 701 million renminbi, or more than double the planned budget in 2019.

[…] “More and more people have fallen in love with Xinjiang and see through the plots and tricks” of Western anti-China forces, […claimed Xinjiang government spokesperson Xu Guixiang], calling [tourism] a “powerful counterattack to the anti-China forces in the U.S. and the West.” [Source]

In a recent trip to the region, Georg Fahrion and Gilles Sabrié from Der Spiegel noted that Xinjiang is in a stage of transition, where repression is ongoing but less conspicuous than before

Now, it seems that three worlds exist simultaneously in Xinjiang: A wonderland full of orientalist kitsch that has been concocted for tourists. A shadowy world of continuing repression, although it is harder to see than it was a few years ago. And an in-between world in which most Uyghurs probably live: no longer in an absolute state of emergency and yet far from normality.

[…] On this reporting trip, the team from DER SPIEGEL attempted to visit around a half dozen [concentration camps]. Two of them are definitely in operation, heavily secured and well shielded. Another now houses a technical college.

[…] During our trip to Xinjiang, we are monitored nonstop by unidentified persons in plainclothes. We understand that they will interrogate any of our random acquaintances as soon as we are out of sight. [Source]

Beneath the surface, Uyghurs continue to suffer. New research by Adrian Zenz, summarized last week in Foreign Policy, “shows that coercive labor transfers for seasonal agricultural work such as cotton picking have continued through at least 2022 and remain part of Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025.” Zenz elaborated on these state-imposed programs and dispelled any notions that coercive labor practices are waning:

Labor transfers subject Uyghurs to state-assigned work placements. They often separate them from their families and communities, subjecting them to intensive surveillance, long work hours, and mandatory political indoctrination and Chinese language classes in the evenings.

[…] The evidence further shows that increased mechanization fuels forced labor, rather than reducing it. Mechanized harvesting requires converting smallholder plots into large, contiguous plantations. The ensuing large-scale collective land transfers force Uyghur farmers to surrender their land usage rights to large private or state-owned entities. These farmers are then subjected to state-arranged labor transfers—typically low-skilled manual work in nearby factories or sweatshops. Hence, even where cotton is harvested mechanically, its production often results in more forced labor, not less.

Beijing’s multiple systems of forced labor are still poorly understood, which can seriously impair the crafting of effective policy. Even seasoned experts and policymakers at times conflate labor transfers with camp-linked forced labor, or believe them to be concentrated in a few sectors, such as cotton or polysilicon. In reality, most forced labor in the region is unrelated to the camps. The bigger factor is coercive labor transfers, which are implemented as part of Xi’s campaign to eradicate absolute poverty. These affect almost all forms of low-skill work, regardless of sector. [Source]

On Wednesday, international human rights group Walk Free released its annual Global Slavery Index, which concluded that Uyghurs make up a large portion of the estimated 5.8 million people living in modern slavery in China:

Since the 2018 [Global Slavery Index], evidence of systematic oppression and pervasive state-imposed forced labour of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim majority peoples has emerged. Forced labour is exacted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a means of racial and religious discrimination; political coercion and education; and as punishment for holding views ideologically opposed to the state. It is reported alongside mass surveillance, political indoctrination, religious oppression, forced separation of families, forced sterilisation, torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention in so-called “re-education camps” within the Uyghur Region.

Forced labour is exacted under the guise of vocational training and poverty alleviation – a scheme promulgated by the CCP to raise living standards in “ethnic areas.” It is primarily facilitated through the transfer of rural populations to work in farms and factories, and the involuntary placement of detainees and ex-detainees in factories located inside or near “re-education camps” in the Uyghur Region and factories across China. Several global supply chains are tainted by this exploitation, including cotton, garments, electronics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), solar-grade polysilicon (used in solar panels), and personal protective equipment (PPE). Similar patterns of abuse are evident in the Tibet Autonomous Region, with reports of labour transfers occurring in construction, textiles, security, and agriculture both as a means of religious discrimination and political indoctrination of Tibetans. [Source]

This month, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University published their latest evidence brief on forced labor in Xinjiang. The brief listed Xinjiang’s share of the global production of various items, noting that the region accounts for 20 percent of the world’s cotton production, 25 percent of its tomato paste, 45 percent of its polysilicon, 10 percent of its PVC, and 12 percent of its aluminum. The authors also provided a non-exhaustive list of at least 31 other types of products that have reportedly been sourced from the region. In The Diplomat on Wednesday, Kuldeep Singh Chauhan summarized the report and described the scope of tainted supply chains emanating from Xinjiang:

The report reveals that the Chinese government has invested substantial resources in developing an extensive network of compulsory labor, violating internationally recognized labor rights conventions. This system encompasses a wide range of industries, including those that have not yet garnered significant attention from the media or academia.

One of the key findings of the study is that the involvement of Uyghur forced labor goes beyond direct suppliers. The XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] serves as a source of raw materials, component parts, and products that can be incorporated into finished goods at various stages of the manufacturing or production process. This implies that Uyghur forced labor may exist in a diverse array of industries and goods, even if the final product is not directly produced in the XUAR.

Furthermore, the report highlights that intermediary manufacturers located outside of China can complicate efforts to trace the origins of semi-finished goods, obscuring the presence of Uyghur forced labor in global supply chains. [Source]

Some governments and organizations around the world are taking steps to pursue small acts of justice that, at the very least, avoid complicity in Uyghur forced labor. Earlier this month, Canada became the first country in the world to establish a law prohibiting cross-border trade in goods made with child labor. In France, a group of NGOs submitted a new legal action to the French judiciary calling for an investigation into whether French textile giants have benefitted from Uyghur forced labor. In the United States, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission accused fast-fashion giant Shein of allegedly sourcing cotton from Xinjiang in violation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. And on Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on China urged Congress to create a list of foreign manufacturers known to exploit forced labor, and also eliminate a loophole that has allowed apparel websites to sell clothes made by Uyghur slave labor to consumers in the U.S.

As governments continue to seek ways to hold the CCP accountable and protect consumers from becoming complicit in slave labor, “Uyghurs are still desperately waiting for the world to realize its promises,” as Campaign for Uyghurs founder and executive director Rushan Abbas tweeted.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.