Forced Uyghur labor undergirds Xinjiang’s export boom   

The Chinese province of Xinjiang is synonymous with human rights abuses, mass incarceration, and forced labor. Western sanctions have come into force as a result. But the South China Morning Post reported on October 24 that Xinjiang’s foreign exports surged by a record 49% in the first three quarters of 2023, driven by a 50 percent increase in exported labor-intensive products — the types of goods most at risk of involving forced Uyghur labor. Kashgar prefecture, located in the Uyghur heartland, increased its foreign trade by a stunning 113 percent.

How is this growth possible after many major international corporations stopped sourcing from the region, and after the U.S. government implemented an import ban?

My new research, published on Oct. 25, helps explain it. Instead of just forcing Uyghurs detained in re-education camps to perform forced labor, Beijing has increasingly coerced them into work settings that appear voluntary, but are not.

It should not be a mystery to either government officials or human rights watchdogs where Xinjiang’s economic boost is coming from. Nor should they wonder what is happening to Uyghurs who resist such insidious involuntary work arrangements: My research presents the first direct evidence that Beijing is punishing such disobedience with internment.

The Chinese Communist Party first began to enforce labor migration policies in Xinjiang in the early 2000s, eventually framing their efforts as a national security imperative. In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang noted that “people without land, employment or a fixed income have nothing to do and wander all day” and will “be easily exploited by evildoers.” General Secretary Xi Jinping stated that the unemployed will “provoke trouble,” whereas employment is “conducive to ethnic interaction, exchanges and blending” and leads ethnic groups to “imperceptibly study Chinese culture.”

But Beijing’s real purpose in forcing Uyghurs into new employment situations has been to undermine their non-Han Chinese identity and discourage resistance to the government.

Subsequent years saw Beijing deploy Targeted Poverty Alleviation Work teams — acting under a mandate of “stimulating the inner motivation of the masses” — to coerce Uyghurs into involuntary work arrangements. In tandem with the now-infamous mass internment, the region separately subjected hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs to coerced skills training with military-style drilling before placing them in factories.   

Today, Xinjiang’s forced labor abuses continue to expand and become more insidious. Policies implemented under the region’s new party secretary, Ma Xingrui, have reduced the flow of Uyghurs into the now-infamous internment camps. Ma’s strategy instead emphasizes funneling Uyghurs into state-mandated jobs. The Communist Party keeps them there through “unemployment monitoring” — the use of region-wide surveillance systems and movement tracking technologies to make it all but impossible for Uyghurs to leave.

By coercing more Uyghurs into these roles, the government makes forced labor more pervasive, and a growing number of Chinese industries and workplaces are becoming implicated in forced labor programs. For example, a full 27 percent of recent tests on shoes and garments conducted by Customs and Border Patrol showed links to cotton from the Xinjiang region.

Ma’s new strategy also serves to cleverly circumvent international audits, which rely on visual inspections and worker interviews to evaluate workplace coercion. The workplaces in question do not feature camp-like security measures, creating the appearance of voluntary employment. International fact-finding missions visiting these sites are of little use, because Uyghurs under the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression in these settings will not speak candidly to interviewers.

Ma’s clandestine approach of binding Uyghurs to their jobs has not only made forced labor harder to detect, but it has also increased its scope. Coercive labor transfers have increased from about 2.6 million in 2014 to more than 3 million in 2022.  

My new report also published, for the first time, secret state documents and new witness accounts showing how the government has used forced detentions to punish non-compliance in these forced labor programs. A camp detainee told me that two of her cellmates were detained for refusing to accept state-mandated work assignments. One of them, a woman from a rural township in Kashgar City, had two small children, a husband who worked in a factory all day, and a responsibility to help her elderly in-laws with farming. When she refused a city factory job arranged by the local government, authorities detained her for harboring “extreme religious thoughts.”

China’s leaders seem to believe that these novel forced labor arrangements can be successfully spun as employment programs to those investigating the their treatment of Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Beijing’s change of tactics has even made the Chinese Communist Party comfortable with signing on to the most recent International Labor Organization convention on forced labor, which came into force last August.

But global authorities responsible for sanctions against Xinjiang, including the U.S. Congress, should not be fooled. They must adapt their enforcement mechanisms accordingly — especially by closing loopholes in the enforcement of the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Xinjiang’s boom times only mean that Chinese communist slave masters and Chinese companies are profiting from clear-cut human rights abuses.

Adrian Zenz is the Director and Senior Research Fellow for China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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