The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China has opened a new front in its criminal war against Muslims in western China

A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region in 2018.
A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region in 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

CHINESE AUTHORITIES are coercing hundreds of thousands of rural workers to carry out the grueling labor of handpicking cotton in the heavily Uighur areas of southern Xinjiang province, subjecting them to harsh recruiting, supervision, surveillance and indoctrination. This disturbing practice is disclosed in a new report from Adrian Zenz, who earlier helped bring to light the construction of an archipelago of involuntary internment centers for ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities. The cotton harvest is another window on China’s efforts to erase the Uighurs’ traditional mind-set and ways of life.

Cotton accounts for almost 10 percent of China’s national exports, and Xinjiang produced 84.9 percent of all cotton in China in 2018. The Uighur-majority regions in southern Xinjiang grow much of the handpicked cotton and nearly all of the highest-quality long-staple cotton. According to Mr. Zenz’s research report for the Center for Global Policy, China’s project has stemmed from several needs. The cotton plantations require huge amounts of steady labor, especially where cotton-picking is not mechanized, and it is more expensive to bring in Han Chinese workers from elsewhere. The central government has also pressed regions to meet specific targets for reducing poverty. At the same time, the government is using work brigades to socially re-engineer the Uighurs and others by eradicating their language and traditions.

Mr. Zenz says that China sends “village-based work teams” into Uighur areas to identify people house-by-house for backbreaking labor in the cotton fields. Once they are sucked into the system, Uighurs are taken to rigorous training centers. One document cited by Mr. Zenz says that recruits must be accompanied by other cadres who “must eat, live, study and work with them, vigorously implementing thought education during cotton picking.” Training of rural workers included political indoctrination, as in the incarceration centers: singing of “red songs,” praising the Communist Party, and education in Mandarin. “A key aspect,” he writes, “is transforming the minorities’ ‘backwards’ work attitude from ‘I am wanted to work’ to ‘I want to work.’ ” The workers are again surveilled and watched closely during the two- to three-month cotton-picking period, from September to November.

The workers are paid, and they do not appear to be forced at gunpoint into the fields. But Mr. Zenz maintains they are coerced. They face the possibility that if they refuse to go, they can be thrown into the internment camps. They are subjected to involuntary surveillance, indoctrination and supervision throughout the training and harvest.

Among other sanctions, the United States on Dec. 2 put restrictions on import of all cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps — a paramilitary organization that produces 37 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton — and its affiliates. But given what Mr. Zenz has disclosed, it would make sense to broaden the ban to include all Xinjiang cotton. It also is time to tell China that as long as it puts the Uighurs in concentration camps and subjects them to coerced labor, it cannot host the most prestigious athletic competition in the world — the Olympics — in winter 2022.

Read more:

The Post’s View: U.S.-made technologies are aiding China’s surveillance of Uighurs. How should Washington respond?

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The Post’s View: Congress has a chance to strike a blow against Chinese forced labor

Josh Rogin: The coronavirus brings new and awful repression for Uighurs in China