Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a rare visit to Xinjiang in the country’s west, where his government is accused of human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
During his last trip to the region in 2014, Xi set in motion a sweeping crackdown. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Xinjiang government unleashed measures that critics say included mass surveillance and detention, destruction of mosques, “re-education,” sterilization and forced labor.
Regarding Xi’s latest trip, the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) noted in an editorial that the United States on June 21 imposed a new trade ban on goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang.
“The [trade ban] has been taken without evidence being provided,” the editorial said.
That is false.
The United Nations defines forced labor 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.”
Researchers and news reports have compiled rich and duplicative evidence that China uses Uyghurs and other Muslims as forced labor to produce a wide range of goods.
Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, published a report on the subject in June 2022, drawing on Chinese planning documents and internal speeches and papers.
China began to expand its coercive labor practices in Xinjiang in 2016-2017 under the guise of anti-poverty efforts targeting rural surplus laborers, Zenz wrote:
“In January 2018, the government then initiated a special plan to transfer laborers from poor counties in southern Xinjiang to other regions … Imitating language from the concurrent mass internment campaign, the plan mandated to ‘train all who should be trained’.
“Between 2016 and 2020, Xinjiang had planned to annually transfer 2.2 million rural surplus laborers. It exceeded this goal by over 30 percent, transferring 2.87 million workers per year. In 2021, the region set a record by transferring a staggering 3.2 million surplus laborers, 15.4 percent more than planned.”
“Rural surplus laborers who refuse state-mandated labor transfer placements remain at risk of penalization through internment in re-education camps,” Zenz wrote.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) conservatively estimated in March 2020 that “more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019” via 35 documented labor transfer programs.
The estimate was based on Chinese state media reports and public Chinese government notices.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported in November 2019 that the Xinjiang government had transferred 100,000 “poverty-stricken” surplus laborers out of Xinjiang between 2018 and 2020.
The Australian report, using “open-source Chinese-language documents, satellite imagery analysis, academic research and on-the-ground media reporting,” also identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that used Uyghur laborers transferred from Xinjiang.
Based on “published supplier lists, media reports, and the factories’ claimed suppliers,” the report identified 82 global brands that “potentially directly or indirectly benefit[ed] from the use of Uyghur workers.”
In February 2020, The Washington Post reported on forced labor of Uyghurs at Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co., a Nike supplier for more than three decades.
“We can walk around, but we can’t go back [to Xinjiang] on our own,” the Post quoted a Uyghur woman saying near the factory gate. The story continued:
“When their shifts end, the Uyghur workers — almost all women in their 20s or younger – use hand gestures and rudimentary Mandarin to buy dried fruit, socks and sanitary pads at the stalls. Then they walk around the corner, past the factory’s police station – adorned with Uyghur writing telling them to ‘stay loyal to the party’ and ‘have clear-cut discipline’ – to dormitories where they live under constant supervision.”
“Everyone knows they didn’t come here of their own free will. They were brought here,” a local fruit-seller near the factory told the Post. “The Uyghurs had to come because they didn’t have an option. The government sent them here.”
The Post also reported that the Uyghur workers’ “ideology and behavior are closely monitored” inside the factory and “the facility resembles a prison.”
“There are watchtowers with cameras pointed in all directions and barbed-wire fences atop the walls,” the Post reported. “There is a special police station equipped with facial-recognition cameras and other high-tech surveillance that workers must pass through when they enter and exit the factory.”
The Taekwang factory is only one of the Chinese suppliers that reportedly has used Uyghur laborers under similar conditions.
The Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University conducted a study on how Uyghur forced labor was used in the global solar panel supply chain.
The report said that “significant evidence – largely drawn from government and corporate sources – reveals that labor transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion."
“Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programs are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement,” the report noted, adding that Uyghur workers were under “the constant threat of re-education and internment.”
The U.S. Congress adopted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) with overwhelming bipartisan support last year. It was signed into law by President Joe Biden on December 23 and went into effect last month.
Under the law, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency enforces a “rebuttable presumption” that “any goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part” in Xinjiang are products of forced labor and barred from entry into the United States unless proven otherwise by “clear and convincing evidence.”
The law lists cotton, tomatoes, apparel and polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar panels, as sectors of “high priority for enforcement.” Trade experts said that products of thousands of global companies could be blocked by the CBP due to links to Xinjiang. Fashion, electric vehicles and renewal energy projects are among the most affected sectors.
The Biden administration stated that the United States would rally its “allies and partners to make global supply chains free from the use of forced labor.”