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Business Is Booming in Northwest China—So Is Uyghur Slave Labor

The mystery of flourishing trade from the Uyghur region is being exposed by scholars determined to plumb the depths of forced labor in northwestern China.



By Ruth Ingram

November 29, 2023

Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s poster against Uyghur forced labor.

Both business and forced labor are booming in Northwest China despite the best efforts of governments and international organizations set on curbing human rights abuses in the Uyghur region.


Measures designed to prevent products made by millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples corralled against their will into factories around China from reaching western markets appear to have hit a wall with news of the latest trade figures from Xinjiang, showing a 49 percent rise in the first three quarters of 2023, driven by a 50 percent increase in exported labor-intensive products.


The figures reported by the “South China Morning Post” on October 24, 2023, are accompanied by even more startling numbers from Beijing’s mouthpiece “China News,” citing Kashgar prefecture, located at the far southwestern edge of the Taklimakan Desert in the Uyghur heartland, whose foreign trade had increased by an unprecedented 113 percent.

Asking how this can be happening is Dr Adrian Zenz, director and senior research fellow for China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, whose latest findings on forced labor in the region were published recently. The only explanation for a surge in exports, he suggests, must be increased coerced labor in the Uyghur region.


Zenz’s dogged probes into the human rights abuses in Xinjiang since Chen Quanguo became governor of the mainly Muslim province in 2015, have shone the spotlight on a raft of atrocities whose form might be changing, but whose nature is still deeply concerning, he maintains.


Speaking to “Bitter Winter,” Zenz said, “We are seeing a very dedicated effort to increase exports from the Uyghur prefectures in Southern Xinjiang.” The exports were just a percentage,” he said. “What in fact we are seeing are massive increases in manufacturing in the Uyghur heartlands,” he said.


The labor-intensive products, according to Zenz, were “the types of goods most at risk of involving forced Uyghur labor.”


Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, UHRP, had doubts about Beijing’s capacity for reliable export data, but told “Bitter Winter,” “Adrian’s research makes it very clear; the Chinese government is succeeding step by step in its plan to have 100% control of Uyghurs’ lives, and 100% control of their work. It is also using economic subsidies to make production shift to East Turkistan.”


In his paper, “The conceptual evolution of poverty alleviation through labor transfer in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region” published October 25, 2023, Zenz probes deeper into the nature of forced labor in the region. He reveals a state plan not only to channel hundreds of thousands of ex “vocational camp” trainees into coerced employment, but also under a separate scheme, to normalize forced labor in the region. Millions of “rural surplus laborers” are swept up into forced labor placements throughout China.


Uyghur workers in a Chinese textile factory. Source: Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region.


While the use of Uyghur forced labor in China’s so-called “re-education camps” has been well documented by journalists, scholars, and nonprofit organizations, based on eye-witness accounts, leaked official documents, and on-the ground reporting, less transparent has been the separate but even more pervasive push to coerce farmers and villagers into factory work around China under the Chinese government’s poverty alleviation programme.


Hiding beneath the incontrovertible swathe of 380 internment camps scattered across the region visible on Google Earth, the kilometers of razor wire, and millions of surveillance cameras that transformed the region into little more than an open prison, is a more insidious and creeping atrocity taking place under the radar of international condemnation, Zenz reveals.


Minus the watchtowers and machine-gun toting guards, the factories taking on the rural laborers give the appearance of business as usual. Zenz proves however that these work details are far from voluntary and refusal to join has serious consequences.


His report provides the first witness testimonies that Uyghurs who refuse to toe the line have been sent to camps on the basis that passing up city factory jobs due to family commitments at home implied they were “harboring extreme thoughts.”


Chen Quanguo’s six-year tenure as governor of Xinjiang from 2015 until his sudden ousting by Ma Xingrui, governor of Guangdong, in December 2021, saw at least one and a half million Turkic, mostly Uyghur peoples swept into so-called “Vocational Training Camps”, millions corralled into forced labor around China, and countless numbers into extrajudicial lengthy jail terms; or simply “disappeared.”


Zenz’s new paper takes a deep dive into Xi Jinping’s National Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer program rolled out in Xinjiang, under which “surplus rural laborers” are trapped in state-choreographed labor transfers under the banner of poverty alleviation and de-extremification.


Adrian Zenz. Credits.


The fine print, which those rounded up for work are never privy to, is that the placements often include tight surveillance, political indoctrination, compulsory Mandarin classes after a day on the shop floor, and the impossibility of returning home before the contract ends. They refuse this chance to “better themselves” at their peril.


With the closure of many euphemistically named Vocational Skills Education and Training Centres (VSETC’S), the Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer policy is assuming more importance in Beijing’s long-term plan, which is to strengthen and institutionalize its policy of compulsory labor among the entire rural Uyghur population of Xinjiang, according to Zenz.


While Xi Jinping’s stated aim of moving so called surplus laborers off the land has been poverty eradication, national security is a major but covert driver, particularly in the Uyghur region. Beijing piggybacked off the US’s War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, with its own crusade against terror, kickstarting emergency legislation that facilitated random arrests and detentions. In the name of reining in separatism and extremism, the mostly Muslim Turkic races became a sitting target for Beijing.


In an op-ed for “The Hill,” a US political news publication published in Washington DC, on November 9, 2023, Zenz quoted then premier Li Keqiang in 2014 as saying “people without land, employment or a fixed income have nothing to do and wander all day” and would “be easily exploited by evildoers.”


General Secretary Xi Jinping said that the unemployed would “provoke trouble,” whereas employment was “conducive to ethnic interaction, exchanges and blending” and leads ethnic groups to “imperceptibly study Chinese culture.”


By 2017, Chinese companies in the region had adopted this framing. Aksu Huafu Textiles Co., which operates the world’s largest textile mill in Xinjiang, stated on its website: “Due to lack of information, lack of courage, and fear of going out, large numbers of rural surplus laborers are idle at home, which increases the burden on their families and brings hidden dangers to public security. Aksu Huafu actively engaged with government departments, actively absorbed surplus labor… to gradually transform them from farmers to industrial workers.”


Coercive labor transfers have increased from about 2.6 million in 2014 to more than 3 million in 2022 and feed into a growing number of Chinese industries and workplaces happy to take advantage of cheap and compliant workers. Forced labor is less visible but more pervasive and cannot be detected by traditional means. Workers are kept at their stations through “unemployment monitoring” and according to Zenz, “the use of region-wide surveillance systems and movement-tracking technologies to make it all but impossible for Uyghurs to leave”.


International fact-finding missions and audits are powerless to determine the real conditions under which Uyghurs work and employees are scared to blow the whistle on their employers. Multinationals have carte blanche to forge ahead under the radar and recruit growing numbers of workers to produce cheap goods for western markets.


Although coercion is illegal under the International Labor Organisation (ILO) of which China is a member proving violations has been difficult and enabled Beijing to pull the wool over the eyes of the world by pushing ahead with its policies.


“The widely used ILO indicators of forced labor are ill-suited, making it easier for Beijing to sign ILO agreements and pretend that coerced non-Han employment is now a normalized and acceptable arrangement,” Zenz said in his report, adding that a “broader, society-wide analysis of recruitment and transfer mechanisms” is vital if the abuses caused by China’s policies are to be curbed.


While the United States’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, UFLPA, has stemmed the flow of many products from XJ, millions of dollars still creep in under a “De minimis” rule whereby parcels under $800 are waived through.


One of the worst offenders, Shein, a fast-growing Chinese clothing company valued at $64 billion, with a “history of labor abuses and environmental destruction” according to New York women’s magazine “The Cut,” exports million dollars of cheap garments round the world. Linked with Uyghur forced labor, it has set up shop in more than twelve European cities building warehouses to store its cut price fashion to avoid further scrutiny of its supply chains and labor practices.

Protest against Shein in London. From X.


“Clearly,” says Zenz, “transferred Uyghurs constitute cheap and easily exploited labor amid soaring nationwide labor costs.”


Both Zenz and Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of Washington-based non-profit Campaign for Uyghurs, CFU, agreed that much of the increase in exports from the region could be put down to increasing trade with neighboring Central Asian Countries. “China uses its neighbors to make up for its losses due to trade sanctions regarding the atrocities committed in East Turkistan and utilizes them to obfuscate the supply chains and real origins of its products,” Abbas said.


Third party countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia for example, using products made in whole or in part with products or raw materials from Xinjiang, were being used to obfuscate supply chains making their origins difficult to track, Zenz said. Supply chain transparency within China was also “non-existent,” said Zenz, enabling goods to find their way to markets within China itself with impunity.


“This is a cat and mouse game,” he said.


Kanat told “Bitter Winter” that if the statistics were proved to be true, Europe should not “keep allowing itself to be a ‘dumping ground’ for the forced-labor goods of Uyghurs suffering ongoing atrocity crimes.” “Europe must not weaken the EU forced-labor import ban being considered by the European Council.”


“The U.S. alone cannot address this issue. It’s crucial for other countries, especially the neighboring economies, to adopt legislation similar to the UFLPA to collectively combat slave labor,” Abbas said.



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