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Hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang forced to pick cotton: Report

Baumwollkapsel, cotton boll, Guangxi, China (Azzurro/WikiCommons)
December 20, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being forced to pick cotton by hand as part of a state-mandated labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme, according to a new report.

Based on evidence drawn from Chinese government documents and the media, “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang: Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton” provides previously unreported details on the extent to which authorities have made use of forced labor in the XUAR—a practice the report said has “potentially drastic consequences for global supply chains.”

Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps as part of an extralegal campaign of incarceration since early 2017.

Under increasing international scrutiny, detainees have been “graduated” and sent to work at nearby factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a leading expert on China’s policies toward Uyghurs, said that previous evidence of forced labor in the region “pertained to only low-skilled manufacturing, including the production of textiles and apparel.”

However, his report for the Washington-based Center for Global Policy details “new evidence for coercion specifically related to cotton picking.”

The XUAR produces 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, potentially “affecting all supply chains that involve Xinjiang cotton as a raw material,” the report said.

On Dec. 2, the U.S. announced that it will detain all shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)—a key paramilitary group in the XUAR—citing forced labor abuses.

The order applies to all cotton goods produced by the XPCC, also known as the “Bingtuan,” and its subordinate and affiliated entities, as well as any products that are made in whole or in part with or derived from that cotton, such as apparel, garments, and textiles.

However, Zenz noted that the XPCC produces only 33 percent of the XUAR’s cotton and only 0.4 percent of its highest-quality cotton.

According to the report, in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme.

But Zenz said that the number of ethnic minorities transferred into cotton picking “likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand.”

Authorities are directing ethnic minorities to the cotton industry, despite increased mechanization, because the XUAR still relies heavily on manual labor. Last year, around 70 percent of the region’s cotton fields were picked by hand, the report noted, particularly the high-quality cotton grown in the region’s south, he said.

The intensive two- to three-month period of cotton picking provides an opportunity to boost rural incomes, and therefore plays a key role in meeting poverty alleviation targets, which Zenz said are mainly achieved through coercive labor transfers.

“Cotton picking is grueling and typically poorly paid work,” the report says.

“Labor transfers involve coercive mobilization through local work teams, transfers of pickers in tightly supervised groups, and intrusive on-site surveillance by government officials and (in at least some cases) police officers. Government supervision teams monitor pickers, checking that they have a ‘stable’ state of mind, and administer political indoctrination sessions.”

While Zenz said that labor transfers are “not directly related to” the campaign of mass internment in the XUAR, they can include people who have been released from camps.

Given how entangled forced labor is in China’s cotton industry, Zenz recommended that the U.S. government “should put a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on any product that contains cotton from any part” of the XUAR.

Government responsibility

Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent U.S. federal government body, called on American companies, especially apparel companies, to “take concrete steps to ensure that their operations in China do not contribute to egregious abuses of human rights.”

“The U.S. government has a responsibility to ensure consumers do not inadvertently purchase products made under unconscionable conditions,” he said.

“The exploitation of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims has become so systematic that U.S. Customs and Border Control should assume that any goods produced in the Uyghur region are the product of forced labor.”

Turkel noted that the U.S. government issued a business advisory for the Uyghur region in July, and that American firms have since begun to conduct more thorough due diligence and, in some instances, cut ties with companies that hire Uyghur forced labor.

“The U.S. business community, across different industries, must thoroughly inspect their supply chains to ensure that products made using forced/slave labor in the Uyghur do not taint the U.S. market,” he said.

“American companies also have real leverage to improve working conditions for Uyghurs in China because the garment industry is so vital to the local economy.“

US scrutiny

The U.S. has aggressively ramped up its response to reports of abuses in the XUAR, with President Donald Trump’s administration in July leveling sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.

U.S. Congress may soon debate new legislation which would prohibit imports from the XUAR to the U.S. amid the growing evidence that internment camps in the region have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, introduced in March, would block imports from the region unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.

Several multinational corporations who use materials from the XUAR in their supply chains have lobbied against the legislation, saying that while they condemn forced labor in the region, it could disrupt their businesses.

In March, the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China named several companies suspected of having ties to forced labor in the XUAR, including Adidas, Nike, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Patagonia, and Costco.

Zenz’s report was welcomed in a statement by the Washington-based Campaign For Uyghurs (CFU) exile group, which said the implications of the new details make it clear that “sourcing from the Uyghur region is no longer in any way defensible.”

“Choosing to fight against legislative efforts to address the atrocities covered in this report is an absolutely despicable thing to do and can be considered direct complicity,” CFU executive director Rushan Abbas said.

CFU said it agrees with recommendations for the U.S. to place an WRO on cotton from the XUAR and also urged other nations to take similar actions.

The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project echoed CFU’s statement, calling for a blanket ban on the import of cotton and cotton products from the XUAR based on the new information in Zenz’s report.

The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) also applauded Zenz’s report, with the group’s president Dolkun Isa saying it shows that “companies have a substantial responsibility to eliminate forced labour in their supply chains and live up to their own principles.’’