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The Dispute Over Forced Labor Is Redefining the Entire US-China Relationship

Even as Washington ramps up pressure over human rights abuses, Beijing is investing more in a labor program it sees as a form of charity.

June 6, 2022

To much of the world, the name “Xinjiang” has become synonymous with human-rights abuses after China’s push to assimilate mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs sparked an international outcry.

But as the US prepares to ban all goods from the remote western region later this month, President Xi Jinping is now moving to rebrand Xinjiang and better integrate it with the rest of China — and the globe.

The appointment of new Xinjiang chief Ma Xingrui — a rising star in the Communist Party who previously ran the tech hub Shenzhen — is emblematic of the shift. In January, the sharply dressed technocrat outlined his vision for Xinjiang, saying it was crucial to “accelerate the integration of urban and rural development” and “vigorously develop labor-intensive industries.” Farmers and herdsmen, he said, must be able to “achieve stable employment and sustained income growth.”

His remarks described the Xinjiang that China wants the world to see: A place where the Communist Party is striving to boost living standards for Uyghurs, in part by finding them jobs. A key component is investing more in a longstanding rural labor transfer program in which villagers spread across an area the size of Alaska are moved to cities, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

Ma Xingrui

Photographer: Edward Wong/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

To the US and others, however, Ma’s comments point to a darker reality: The expansion of a state-sponsored forced labor program under the guise of anti-poverty efforts that contributes to genocide. In their view, although some Uyghurs may want to leave their homes to work elsewhere, many others are too afraid to say no to a government that has separately been accused of incarcerating more than a million of them in recent years. Last month, the BBC published thousands of mugshots of detainees obtained from a hack of Xinjiang police files.

“In the Uyghur Region, refusing a government-sponsored labor program is not an option — that is what makes it forced labor,” said Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at UK-based Sheffield Hallam University. “This is not a social program.”

Now President Joe Biden is going even further in putting forced labor at the center of the overall US-China relationship, a move that is already starting to reshape global supply chains. Last month the US outlined plans to boost diplomatic pressure on China over what it called “horrific abuses” in the region, adding that it would “fully leverage its authorities and resources to combat forced labor in Xinjiang” — including by lobbying other countries to implement strict measures.

Xinjiang Takes Center Stage The region accounts for almost a sixth of China's land area

From June 21, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act will block imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren’t made with forced labor. The White House is also weighing unprecedented financial sanctions on Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., which makes surveillance systems, for linkages to alleged human-rights abuses by the Xinjiang government — a claim the company has repeatedly denied. That could open the door for similar penalties that could cut off other major Chinese companies from the global financial system.

That may just be the start. Since workers and goods from Xinjiang flow across the country, it’s nearly impossible to determine what products are made in the rest of China using what the US deems as forced labor — raising the prospect that the American import ban could eventually be extended to other regions. The Biden administration appears to have given up on trade talks and is now focused on reducing its dependence on China — a position that has bipartisan support in Washington, where both parties are increasingly skeptical of changing the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior through economic engagement.

“We’re breaking these economies apart if China continues this route,” said Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, adding that companies will need to pick sides. “You can’t stay in that system and be in ours too if they’re going to operate this way.”

“We’re breaking these economies apart if China continues this route.”

China has repeatedly denied the forced labor allegations, calling them the “lie of the century,” and in April ratified two International Labor Organization treaties dealing with the practice. Still, Xi’s government makes it difficult for foreigners to inspect factories and closely monitors any journalists who visit the region, making it near impossible to verify those claims.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned last week that the American import ban on Xinjiang would "severely disrupt normal cooperation between China and the US, and global industrial and production chains.” He said that Beijing would take unspecified actions in response, while accusing the US of seeking to “hobble China’s development.”

Businesses have already gotten caught in the middle. China last year endorsed a boycott against retailers like Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz AB over statements opposing the use of forced labor in picking Xinjiang cotton. Groups like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Tech Transparency Project have highlighted dozens of well-known global companies they say benefited from Uyghur forced labor in supply chains, and Bloomberg News reported last year that Apple Inc. had severed ties with one supplier, Ofilm Group Co., over allegations it participated in the jobs transfer program.

After facing the boycott threats last year, H&M said it doesn’t take political positions, respects Chinese consumers and purchases cotton from “sustainable sources.” Ofilm hasn’t answered questions on its involvement in China’s labor transfer program, and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Xinjiang accounts for less than 2% of China’s population but nearly a sixth of its total land area. Ethnic minorities make up a majority in the region, dominated by Turkic-speaking Uyghurs who have long warned their culture faced threats from ethnic Han who comprise more than 90% of China’s 1.4 billion people — including Xi and all top Communist Party leaders.

In 2014, a spike in Uyghur-perpetrated violence mainly against Han Chinese prompted Xi to order authorities to “strike first” against terrorists. That led to the creation of an elaborate system of detention centers to indoctrinate minorities with Communist Party ideology while teaching them some work and language skills.

WATCH: Forced Labor Dispute Is Redefining US-China Relations

After the scale of the camps became known, China said in late 2019 that everyone had “graduated” and the “vocational education and training centers” were closed. But the separate longstanding efforts to assimilate Uyghurs through anti-poverty jobs programs never stopped — and that’s where the debate starts over whether China’s policies amount to forced labor, which the ILO defines as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”

Unlike in other countries the US has accused of forced labor, the allegations against China are related to government programs seen as charitable within the country. In one example, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co., a global leader in wind-turbine manufacturing, said in a 2020 report that it helped with the government’s labor transfer program to eliminate poverty.

“The problem’s becoming more pervasive.”

Then last year, the company released a “commitment letter” saying it has respected human rights for more than 20 years and “strictly prohibits any form of child or forced labor.” When contacted for comment, Goldwind reiterated that those practices are barred, along with bonded labor and the trafficking of persons, “throughout company operations and within our global supply chain.”

The US says the worker transfers are facilitated by a “mutual pairing program” in which governments and enterprises employ workers either in factories built in Xinjiang or by hiring them to work at plants in other provinces. And the number of Uyghurs being moved away from villages is steadily growing.

Adrian Zenz, who has conducted extensive research on Xinjiang, released a new study using official data to show that a record 3.2 million transfers of so-called surplus workers were made in 2021. That’s 15.4% more than originally planned, he noted, adding that it’s possible that some people were transferred more than one time.

While authorities haven’t published recent data on how many workers are transferred from Xinjiang to other parts of the country, in 2020 the government said a total of 117,000 had been sent out of the region since 2014. China doesn’t provide a breakdown of where the Xinjiang workers end up, raising questions about the extent to which they are already embedded in factories all throughout the country that export goods to the world.

What’s more, Zenz’s latest study found that official documents including the Xinjiang Five-Year Plan through 2025 show the labor transfer program is set to expand over the next few years. Key goals include “dynamic clearing” of zero-employment families in urban areas and a mandate for “every single person who is able to work to realize employment.” The language marks an expansion from previous plans that referred to “every able-bodied person,” suggesting that even mothers and other caretakers could be forced to work, he said.

“The problem’s becoming more pervasive,” said Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

The rural jobs transfer program has its roots in China’s hukou system, which restricted the movements of citizens into cities. In the late 1970s, leader Deng Xiaoping started opening the country to investment and made it easier for workers to move around. Even so, by the turn of the century the number of surplus rural laborers was still estimated at some 100-200 million people.

In 2002, the Communist Party decided to remove all movement restrictions, so long as population flows were “orderly” and “guided.” The Agriculture Ministry then urged local governments to boost vocational training for rural workers and link them with job opportunities in cities. Ever since the program has been hailed an important national tool for ending poverty.

In Xinjiang, however, the initiative took on an added political dimension following Xi’s crackdown on Uyghurs. According to the Xinjiang Papers, a collection of more than 400 internal Chinese documents leaked to the New York Times, Xi in 2014 called for ethnic groups to be put to work, arguing that large numbers of unemployed people would “provoke trouble” and integration with Han Chinese would help them “resist religious extremist thinking.”

“People without land, employment or a fixed income have nothing to do and wander around all day,” Premier Li Keqiang was quoted as saying in one document. “Not only will this breed dissatisfaction, but they will also be easily exploited by evildoers.”

The government then devised a strategy to put Uyghurs to work, both through canvassing villages directly and creating incentives for companies to hire them.

It took a while for those efforts to pay off. A 2019 study, co-authored by a vice dean at a branch of the Communist Party school in Xinjiang, detailed the struggles local officials faced in recruiting workers.

In some cases, the party assigned quotas for local officials to fill jobs and made those a key part of performance reviews, according to the study, which was published in a magazine run by the local branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the central province of Shaanxi. Officials also required low-income households to participate in order to continue receiving government subsidies, it said, and offered extra cash to those who signed up.

The party also drew upon a strategy known as “fanghuiju,” shorthand for a slogan that translates as “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People.” Workers went door to door in impoverished villages, often armed with handbooks that instructed them how to influence parents through their children and deflect uncomfortable questions.

While some Uyghurs are allowed to choose their jobs, the threat of detention is often sufficient to secure cooperation, said Rune Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, who conducted anthropological fieldwork in Xinjiang between 2010 and 2016.

“If they don’t adapt to the party line and do everything the party asks them, then they’re in immediate danger of becoming branded as uncooperative,” he said. “And that can mean incarceration for you and your family.”

Companies also received perks for using Uyghur labor, including cheap land and favorable treatment from government officials. Soon local agencies started advertising openings and even holding job fairs.

“The advantages of Xinjiang workers are semi-military style management, can withstand hardships,” said one advertisement uncovered by ASPI that offered 1,000 Uyghur workers aged 16 to 18 years. “Minimum order 100 workers!”

Once deployed, workers are accompanied by both a local party member and a police officer who ensures the management feels safe, according to Darren Byler, who has written books on Xinjiang and teaches anthropology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. They are also separated from their families for months, he added.

“Workers that are sent to other parts of China are seen as the least politically sensitive,” Byler said. “You begin to see the way that life is circumscribed and controlled by the factory and the police and the government — that they’re not permitted to practice Islam, that they’re required to study Chinese and political thought at night. That they’re living in really unfree conditions.”

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China’s government rejects those allegations, and regularly holds press briefings featuring Uyghurs who say they are free to do what they please. One of them, Memettiryimu Nansertin, said he made more than 4,000 yuan ($600) a month — at least five times what farmers make in his home county — working for an appliance company in eastern Zhejiang province that provided air-conditioned dormitory rooms and a halal restaurant.

“Some foreign people say we are forced to work and we are monitored beyond Xinjiang, which is sheer nonsense,” he said. “It is our freedom to work everywhere in our country.”

Ma, the new Xinjiang chief, wants to expand connections like this even further. In his last job as governor of Guangdong, he earned the admiration of foreign business executives for pushing through bureaucratic hurdles. He’ll almost certainly be elevated to the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo later this year.

“I myself witnessed how he has been hands-on in getting big investment into Guangdong — and then not only getting the investment in, but actually followed it through,” said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. “He wants stuff to succeed, and that’s what the president wants.”

In April, Ma said the system of pairing Xinjiang with assistance around China remained a “major political undertaking.” He also hosted delegations from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, encouraging investments in Xinjiang and linkages to the Greater Bay Area — a region that includes both Hong Kong and neighboring Shenzhen.

At the same time, Ma has emphasized the need to “deepen deradicalization work.” The government should do all it can to “educate and rescue people who are deluded by extreme thoughts,” he wrote in an April article in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

The transfer labor policy is a big part of that effort. Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang government spokesman, told reporters in April there would be more such programs in the future, saying they worked “very well” and “achieved what we have expected.”

“When they come back from the big cities to their villages, they changed their minds and their ideas,” he said, referring to participants in the labor program.

It’s that sort of rhetoric that critics point to as evidence of coerced indoctrination, fueling concern in the US and increasingly elsewhere around the globe. In February, an ILO report by a committee of experts called on China to review its policies to ensure equality of opportunity and end links between vocational training and political reeducation.

The trip to China last month by Michelle Bachelet, the first United Nations human rights chief to visit since 2005, underscored the divide: As the US criticized her for agreeing to visit Xinjiang without “free and full access,” the Foreign Ministry in Beijing listed forced labor among a range of accusations it said showed the US’s “obsession with encircling and containing China.”

“The views of the two parties are far apart and unlikely to be bridged in the foreseeable future,” He Weiwen, a former commercial counselor at Chinese diplomatic missions in New York and San Francisco, said of the forced-labor allegations. “It will become an important factor affecting bilateral economic ties for years to come.”


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