A report recently released by the Center for Global Policy suggests that more than half a million people from ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang have been forced into picking cotton. The findings of the report lead to the conclusion that forced labour is more prevalent in the region than previously thought.
20% of the entire world’s cotton, and 84% of China’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang but now there is suspicion that Uighurs and other individuals from muslim Turkic minorities in China are being forced to pick cotton.
The report was authored by Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher specialising in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions, who analysed government documents and state media reports to determine that it is likely that state authorities are using coercive “labour transfer programs” in order to have hundreds of thousands of workers to pick cotton.
The chinese labour transfer program is supposed to be nationwide poverty alleviation scheme however, there is growing evidence that this program actually coerces Uighurs and other muslim minority communities.
These labour programs are not secret; they have been frequently written about in chinese state media as positive examples of the government assisting millions of poor and disenfranchised people into work, but those same articles also hint at their coercive nature. Transferred workers are often sent far from their home, and made to live on site in factories and subjected to ideological training.
In the XPcC regions mechanised harvesting has increased to roughly 83%, but areas in the south of Xinjiang – which produce a far larger share of the cotton – are still majorly reliant on manual picking cotton. The number of workers brought in from other provinces for the harvest season had dropped, but the report found the proportion of local ethnic minority labourers had increased dramatically.
An estimated 570,000 people came through three minority-heavy prefectures alone – Aksu, Hotan, and Kashgar – and labor programs in other ethnic minority regions as well as prison labor would probably add hundreds of thousands to this figure.
Chinese news reports on these labour schemes have included periodic references to policies discouraging “illegal religious activities” and changing thoughts and behaviour.
A state media report, published in 2019, on the cotton picking program declared that one of its participants had “gradually overcome the disadvantages of the lack of land, deep-rooted thoughts of being lazy, insufficient inner motivation, and low awareness of going out to work”.
Another report wrote how it was necessary to “get rid of the old-fashioned, blocked, and lazy thoughts of peasants and herdsmen”.
In 2020, the U.S imposed sanctions and cotton import restrictions, due to human rights concerns, on all cotton suppliers that are under the purview of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – which produces and supplies a third of Xinjiang’s cotton, and is a paramilitary production entity.
In September, news outlet, Reuters corroborated research conducted by Adrian Zenz, which revealed that authorities in Tibet were massively expanding the labour transfer program, by setting quotas to move hundreds of thousands of people off their land and into military-style work training facilities.
China’s treatment of the minority populations – including the mass internment of people in re-education camps, enforced sterilisation of women, technological and human surveillance – has been labelled cultural genocide by analysts. China denies the accusations, saying the camps are vocational training centres necessary to combat religious extremism. In September, the government confirmed about 1.29 million people went through the centres every year.
In July, exiled Uighurs delivered a dossier of evidence to the ICC asking it to investigate crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang. On Monday, the office of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said it was unable to do so because the alleged crimes happened inside China, which was outside the ICC’s jurisdiction.