A new report on Uyghur forced labor in China finds there may be an increase in Beijing's coercive labor campaign targeting the predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, expanding a widely condemned program that China has long denied.
"Despite the decrease in concrete publicly available evidence, the new developments are increasing both the scale and the scope of coercive labor, expanding it to higher-skilled sectors," stated a report posted this week on the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation's website. The report warned that "sectors requiring higher skills levels will in the future increasingly be at risk of coercive labor as well."
For Uyghurs who were forced into work placements in the past, China's current five-year plan that started in 2021 now prevents Uyghurs from leaving their work through "unemployment and poverty prevention" policies and surveillance, according to the report. Since last year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials in Xinjiang have been monitoring rural Uyghurs' employment and income, the report said. The current five-year plan comes after five years of what Beijing views as successes in "mobilizational labor placement efforts" in Xinjiang from 2016-2020, according to the Jamestown Foundation report. China's current plan from 2021-2025 is set to focus on consolidation and maintenance of its coercive labor campaign in the region. The Chinese government's coercion of ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, into labor-intensive manufacturing dates back to 2016 under its "Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer" campaign, according to report author Adrian Zenz, senior fellow and director of China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial.
"The point at which Xinjiang's labor transfers became highly coercive coincided with the beginning of the mass internment campaign in the first half of 2017," the report stated. There were two types of forced laborers from Xinjiang who went to work in other parts of the country from 2016-2020, according to the report. One was made up of detainees in internment camps or what China called Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers (VSETC), and the other was a group labeled as "rural surplus laborers."
"The forced work placement of likely hundreds of thousands VSETC detainees continues to implicate many labor-intensive manufacturing sectors, especially textiles and garments," the report stated. "Rural surplus laborers who refuse state-mandated labor transfer placements remain at risk of penalization through internment in re-education camps," the report found. China has repeatedly denied accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang. China's state news agency Xinhua last year quoted Xu Guixiang, an official of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, as saying that residents there "have freedom in employment, and what the government does is to improve employment policies and provide a good employment environment."
Last year, Xinhua reported a study by Xinjiang scholars who interviewed 70 migrant workers from Xinjiang who said they chose to work away from home. Some of them said they were able to sightsee on holidays and weekends. The report described an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report on Uyghur forced labor as "lies." The ASPI report said, based on government documents, workers were under "constant surveillance" and "have limited freedom of movement."
US law on Uyghur forced labor
Uyghur forced labor has been at the forefront of U.S.-Sino tensions. A bipartisan letter was sent to President Joe Biden on June 6 by four U.S. lawmakers urging his administration to fully implement the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) that was signed into law last December. The U.S. law bans imports made with forced labor in Xinjiang and is set to go into effect on June 21. The United States, along with some other Western governments and rights groups, accuse Beijing of genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, which China had repeatedly denied. The accusations include forced labor, sterilization, arbitrary detention of over 1 million people in internment camps, and the eradication of language and culture.
"As authors of the legislation, we anticipate that full implementation of the law by the administration will demonstrate U.S. global leadership on the issue of modern slavery and accomplish the intent of Congress to prevent anybody from profiting off atrocities and to protect American consumers from having to use and consume goods made from forced labor," the letter stated. In a June 2 press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said "we have rebuked U.S. lies on 'forced labor' in Xinjiang many times." It charged that the UFLPA "maliciously smears the human rights conditions" in Xinjiang.
"We urge the U.S. to refrain from enforcing the act, stop using Xinjiang-related issues to interfere in China's internal affairs and contain China's development," Zhao told the press in Beijing. "If the U.S. is bent on doing so, China will take forceful measures to firmly defend its own interests and dignity."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidance states that the Uyghur Forced Labor Act has a "presumption" that all products from Xinjiang are made with forced labor, and are banned from entering the U.S. unless companies are able to provide "clear and convincing evidence" that forced labor was not involved.