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Why China and US Disagree on Forced Labor in Xinjiang

Uighur men walking towards the Id Kah mosque to attend Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan, in Kashgar in China’s nortrhwest Xinjiang region. Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images (Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

The US and China have many trade disputes, but none perhaps as explosive as accusations about forced labor being used in China’s Xinjiang region. The Chinese government, which vehemently denies the charges, says outsiders have misconstrued a rural jobs program that aims to improve living standards for ethnic minorities in poor regions. But many people from one targeted group -- the mainly Muslim Uyghurs living in Xinjiang -- say that they have no choice but to participate or risk having themselves or family members put in detention. The US, which says the program contributes to a campaign of genocide, is stepping up the pressure on China with a new law that takes effect June 21.

1. What is the new law?

Under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December, the US government assumes that anything made even partially in Xinjiang is produced with forced labor and can’t be imported unless companies are able to provide “clear and compelling evidence” otherwise. That raises the prospect that the ban could be extended to other Chinese regions, since workers and goods from Xinjiang flow across the country. The new process will effectively supplant about a dozen existing orders barring the import of some goods from Xinjiang, including cotton, tomatoes and solar panel material. China has warned that the new law would “severely” damage ties between the two nations and has vowed to take countermeasures. 

2. What does forced labor mean?

The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, defines it 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.” (China in April ratified two long-standing ILO conventions on forced labor, though it didn’t signal any policy changes.)

3. How did China’s program begin?

The rural jobs transfer program has roots in China’s hukou registration system, which determines where people can live and work. In the late 1970s, leader Deng Xiaoping started opening the country to foreign 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 100 million to 200 million people. In 2002, the Communist Party decided to lift 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.

4. What’s different in Xinjiang?

Basically the political situation. About 10 million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, inhabit the region, which is roughly the size of the US state of Alaska. They have long complained that their culture was under threat from an influx of ethnic Han Chinese, who comprise more than 90% of China’s 1.4 billion people. In 2014, a spike in Uyghur-perpetrated violence, mainly against Han Chinese, prompted President Xi Jinping to order authorities to “strike first” against terrorists. So they set up a separate system of “vocational education and training centers” designed to identify and de-radicalize ethnic minorities with extremist views by indoctrinating them with party ideology -- while also teaching job and Chinese language skills. A 2019 assessment by a United Nations working group said an estimated 1 million people had “reportedly been sent to internment facilities under the guise of ‘counterterrorism and de-extremism’ policies since 2016.”

5. Is it still happening?

China -- which strictly controls access by outsiders to the remote region -- says the centers are no longer in operation and that everyone has now “graduated.” (It also says the region has been free from terror attacks for more than five years.) It’s important to note, however, that the detention camps are separate from the jobs program. While some went directly from the camps into jobs, most recruits are from villages and other poor areas who are “encouraged” by the government to apply. Ma Xingrui, who was appointed as the new Communist Party chief for the region in December, has the stated aim of advancing Xinjiang’s economic development, which will likely entail expanding the labor program in terms of numbers as well as skill levels.

6. How does it work?

According to scholars including Rune Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic who conducted anthropological fieldwork in Xinjiang between 2010 and 2016, it goes like this: Villages are assigned quotas for workers to be transferred out. Government officials are persistent in their cajoling and persuading. Those who participate are sometimes given wages and a degree of autonomy to choose the type of work they do. The threat of detention or other repercussions for the person and their family is often sufficient to secure their cooperation. It’s this intense persuasion that forms the coercive element of transfer labor programs, suggesting limited or no free will. Another researcher, Adrian Zenz, used official data to show that a record 3.2 million transfers were made in 2021, though it’s possible that some people were transferred more than once.

7. Where do workers in Xinjiang go?

Some stay in the region, where manufacturing is still emerging. The Chinese government created a program that aims to promote investment in Xinjiang, usually by granting favorable terms. These investors build factories in the region and in some cases agree to hire some workers through the labor transfer program. In other cases Uyghur laborers are dispatched from Xinjiang to work in other provinces, removing them from their communities and families. This isolation in often unwelcoming locations can slowly erode cultural and religious links with their homes. Not everyone can go, however -- only those who are deemed not to pose a security risk in the form of a potential for violence or terrorism, according to Darren Byler, who has written books on Xinjiang and teaches at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In 2020, the government said a total of 117,000 people had been sent out of the region since 2014. 

8. How is it linked to genocide?

In one of its last acts, President Donald Trump’s administration designated China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang as genocide, which is defined by international convention as specific acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tied the labor issue to other charges including forced sterilizations and indefinite detention without trial, and said the campaign was ongoing. The Biden administration has kept the same stance. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has called accusations of genocide in Xinjiang “the lie of the century.” In May, Michelle Bachelet became the first UN human rights chief to visit China since 2005. Though she went to Xinjiang, she said she was unable to visit any detained Uyghurs or their families, while adding that her trip wasn’t an “investigation.”

• A Bloomberg Big Take on how the dispute is redefining US-China Relations, and an investigative report on Xinjiang’s solar industry.

• The US State Department 2021 report on Xinjiang.

• A Jamestown Foundation report by scholar Adrian Zenz on new trends in Xinjiang’s coercive labor placement systems.

• A report co-authored by Laura Murphy at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK on Uyghur forced labor and building materials.

• From the archive: China’s vast police state and how it defends its actions in Xinjiang.

• QuickTakes on China’s new Silk Road, its treatment of Uyghurs and what calling something genocide means.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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