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Forced Labour Is Set to Stay in the Uyghur Heartland

Despite official denials, the policy is not only continuing. In fact, it is accelerating, as Adrian Zenz’s research shows.

By Ruth Ingram


Laborers at an embroidery factory in Xinjiang. Source: The Jamestown Foundation, from CGTN.

How many farmers given the choice would prefer the four walls of a sweat shop sewing Nike trainers in a city far from home? How many traditional housewives and mothers would rather their children be brought up by strangers while they sew collars on shirts on a production line for Western fashion brands?

The fate of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur men and women given no such choice and corralled into forced labour as part of the CCP’s so-called “poverty alleviation” drive, shocked the world briefly. Flurries of outrage at first and calls for the international community to take action against China have morphed into indifference in the face of a succession of international crises, and Beijing continues to protest its innocence by denying the practice. Despite branding the accusations “lies of the century,” however, the CCP’s own websites are evidence enough that what started as a policy to supposedly boost the economy of Xinjiang has been consolidated as a political tool to subdue its people.

New revelations from Adrian Zenz of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) have spotlighted the issue again and his damning investigations prove that the policy is not only continuing but in fact accelerating.

According to Zenz, the draconian practice largely unchallenged by the world, but itself defined by the International Criminal Court as a Crime Against Humanity, is not only reserved for “intransigent” “wannabe terrorists” released from re-education in the labyrinthine network of camps throughout the Xinjiang region, but has been normalised across the board in the latest CCP’s five year plans (2015–2020 and 2021–2025). Tens of thousands of Uyghurs are now as a matter of course trawled in for compulsory work placements either in other parts of Xinjiang or inner China. Everyone in fact, without a job, euphemistically named “surplus labour” must work.

The Chinese government has decreed that the willingness to work and the abilities of the poor are “insufficient,” and together with their inner motivation must be “stimulated,” found Zenz. Whereas prior to 2014, the polices were vague and largely voluntary, coercion after that date was ramped up, and constrained by political rather than economic drivers. The integration of ethnic groups, was a priority, a euphemism according to Zenz for shifting the Uyghur population of Xinjiang to other areas to alter the ethnic mix. This was confirmed in the 2021 Nankai Report by researchers within China, who discovered that one of the major motivators behind labour transfers was population reduction in Uyghur areas.

Despite Beijing’s reluctance to publicise its current stance, the recent leak of hacked documents, the Xinjiang Police Files have shed more light on CCP intentions vis a vis its Uyghur so-called “surplus labour” population. “Xinjiang’s continued social stability is predicated upon ensuring that ethnic minority citizens remain in state-controlled and economically productive factory settings. Therefore, the region’s coercive labor systems remain necessary for the ongoing achievement and consolidation of political goals,” discovered Zenz.

“Population optimisation,” has become the new watchword and the transfers have surpassed expectations. Between 2016–2020 Xinjiang exceeded its original transfers from 2.2 million “rural surplus labourers” to 2.87 million workers annually. The new bar in 2021 has been set at 3.2 million, 15.4 per cent more than planned.

Xinjiang’s current (14th) Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan (2021–2025) focuses on consolidating, maintaining and expanding these outcomes. In short, those who were coercively mobilized into work placements are now effectively prevented from leaving them,” is Zenz’s sobering conclusion.

The state machinery is unstoppable. Everyone who is able to work must work, household income must continue to increase, on pain of investigation, vocational training must be stepped up from 1 million to 1.5 million and companies are pressurised to place orders for workers, whom the state will guarantee to take, train and deliver.

State media is now no longer addressing the coercive nature of the policy, but is full of good news stories, of transformed lives. 20,000 were earmarked for 2020, and from “trouble spots” Hotan and Qiemo came calls for increased numbers. Several hundred thousand more are earmarked for labour on release from the so-called “transformation through education camps,” and quotas are set to rise.

Adrian Zenz. Credits.

Zenz estimates that between two and two and a half million individuals are at risk of coercive labour, and increasingly the profits from the policies are finding their way into state coffers and the export market. The scheme is set to expand from low-skilled to increasingly higher-skilled industrial sectors and the companies that employ the trainees or export products from their labour will become increasingly compromised in a world waking up to the injustices perpetrated in the province. Auditing is all but impossible within China. Despite Beijing’s formal ratification recently of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) forced labour 1957 convention, its continued denial of the forced labour practice indicates it has no intention of abandoning its political goals in the region.

The only solution, suggests Zenz, is a concerted international response. The United States’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) about to come into force on June 21, 2022, whereby the onus of proof is on companies to guarantee that forced labour has not tainted their supply chains, is a start. But more must be done as a united front should stand against the scourge of forced labour within China, and particularly that meted out on the Uyghurs and Turkic peoples in Xinjiang.

Whether you be a voluntary stay at home mum, a family with an elderly dependant relative, a farmer who loves to tend his fields, or someone with other plans for their life, Zenz’s findings show that whereas initially the forced transfer scheme combined with political indoctrination, language training, military drills and racial assimilation, was embraced reluctantly, the Party has largely succeeded in creating a web from which no transferred labourer can escape.

The CCP has the chosen careers of the entire population of Xinjiang in its sights… and the world must take action.


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