Half a million Muslims forced to pick cotton as scale of Chinese slave labour exposed

·3 min read
Muslims hold placards during a protest against the Chinese government's policies on Muslim Uighur minorities, in Mumbai - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE /AFP
Muslims hold placards during a protest against the Chinese government's policies on Muslim Uighur minorities, in Mumbai - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE /AFP

China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other minorities to pick cotton by hand in the western region of Xinjiang, a key source of the world’s cotton, according to a report by a Washington-based think tank. 

Rights activists have estimated that Chinese authorities have detained more than one million Uighurs and other, mostly Muslim, minorities in detention camps in Xinjiang since 2017. Beijing denies that Uighurs’ rights are abused and says re-education centres provide vocational training to help people gain employment, and are necessary to curb extremism. 

Now, information from Chinese government documents and state media reports provides evidence that at least half a million people have been forced to pick cotton through a coercive state-mandated labour transfer and poverty alleviation scheme, the Center for Global Policy says. 

In 2018, three majority-Uighur areas within Xinjiang alone mobilised at least 570,000 people to pick cotton through the scheme, according to the think tank report published Monday.

It estimates that the total number of people from ethnic minorities sent to pick cotton “likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand”. 

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang - THOMAS PETER /Reuters
A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang - THOMAS PETER /Reuters

Cotton pickers are transferred in tightly supervised groups, and on site are watched by government officials and, at least sometimes, by police officers, the report says. Some areas put Uighur children and elderly people into “centralized care” while working-age adults are away picking cotton. Supervisors also administer “political indoctrination sessions” to the workers.  

“While not directly related to the campaign of mass internment, these labour transfers can include persons who have been released from internment camps,” says the report, which was written by independent researcher Dr Adrian Zenz, who has studied Beijing’s internment campaign in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is a major global hub for the cotton industry. It produces 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, and relies heavily on manual labour to do so, particularly for higher quality cotton. 

The report recommends that companies be required to thoroughly investigate the role of Chinese cotton in their supply chains, while “governments must also be proactive in related monitoring procedures”.

The main cotton producer in Xinjiang, the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, has already been called out by the United States for using forced Uighur labour.  

People who believe their families and relatives to be detained by Chinese authorities in internment camps Xinjiang Province gather in Almaty, Kazakhstan - Sam Tarling /Sam Tarling 
People who believe their families and relatives to be detained by Chinese authorities in internment camps Xinjiang Province gather in Almaty, Kazakhstan - Sam Tarling /Sam Tarling

Earlier this month, U.S. customs authorities issued an order to block its cotton products from entering the country “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labour”. 

At that time, China expressed anger at the order, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying that workers of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang choose work “according to their own will and sign labour contracts of their own volition”.  

“It must be noted that helping people of all ethnic groups find stable employment, and ‘forced labour’, are completely different concepts,” she said.

The Center for Global Policy report said that while the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps produces a third of the cotton from the region, “it is very likely that a major share of cotton production in Xinjiang is tainted with forced labour”.

The U.S. Congress is already considering legislation that would declare all goods made in Xinjiang the products of forced labour, meaning they would be blocked from entering the country.  

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