Jan 5, 2021 - World

The scope of forced labor in Xinjiang is bigger than we knew

Illustration of Muslim woman facing a cotton field with handcuffs
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

China has constructed a vast string of factories inside the walls of Xinjiang mass internment camps, and Chinese authorities are forcing thousands of Muslim minorities to work in cotton fields, according to two recent investigations.

Why it matters: Xinjiang products are deeply integrated into lucrative supply chains around the world. The Chinese Communist Party's official embrace of coerced labor will force Western governments and institutions to choose between pleasing business leaders or enforcing universal human rights values.

Details: In the past three years, the Chinese government has forced hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labor in the region's cotton fields, according to a December investigation from the BBC.

  • People are sent to the fields as part of a "labor transfer program," the BBC reports, drawing on Chinese government documents provided by Adrian Zenz, a leading expert on China's policies in Xinjiang.
  • Beijing claims the programs alleviate poverty by providing well-paid employment for rural residents without a regular income.
  • But researchers and rights groups say the labor transfer programs are part of the system of control, indoctrination and forced assimilation the Chinese government has deployed against Uighurs.
  • Workers fear they will be sent to detention camps if they don't participate and are often underpaid.

A new report from BuzzFeed, based on satellite imagery, interviews and government documents, found more than 100 mass detention facilities in Xinjiang that together contain more than 21 million square feet of factory space.

  • Researchers identified more than 1,500 companies located in or near these facilities, with dozens of the companies exporting products to countries around the world.

The global response: Forced labor goes against international human rights conventions, but so far the U.S. is the only geopolitical power that has responded with substantive action.

  • The Trump administration last year sanctioned numerous Chinese officials and government bureaus deemed complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a quasi-military organization that owns vast swaths of farmland in Xinjiang and operates some mass internment camps.
  • The Commerce Department added to an export blacklist numerous Chinese companies deemed complicit in Xinjiang repression.
  • On Dec. 2, the U.S. blocked cotton imports associated with the XPCC.

But many feel pressure from China to avoid taking similar actions — a pressure that often manifests through economic ties.

  • By his own admission, President Trump resisted most action on Xinjiang until the U.S.-China phase one trade deal negotiations were finished and an agreement signed, in order to avoid losing leverage.
  • Despite its stated concern over forced labor, the EU just signed an investment agreement with China, with language that barely flicks at the massive violations in Xinjiang.

And some major companies, including Nike and Coca-Cola, have lobbied hard against a draft bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which aims to keep products made with forced labor out of the U.S.

  • U.S. law already prohibits the importation of products made with forced labor. But the office tasked with enforcing the ban, the Forced Labor Division, housed in Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, doesn't have the resources to trace the complex and opaque supply chains originating in Xinjiang, and it often relies on reports from news outlets and watchdog organizations.
  • This draft bill would instead put the onus on companies to prove their supply chains aren't tainted by coerced labor.

The bottom line: New investigations are revealing the expanded scope and scale of China's forced labor policies in Xinjiang. But so far, governments and companies around the world continue to put profits first.

Go deeper: Global textile watchdogs struggled to raise alarms over forced labor in Xinjiang

Go deeper