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Analysis | Why China and the US disagree on forced labor in Xinjiang


The US and China have many trade disputes, but none are perhaps as explosive as allegations about the use of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The Chinese government, which vehemently denies the allegations, says outsiders have misinterpreted a rural job program that aims to improve living standards for ethnic minorities in poor regions. But many people from one target group – the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs living in Xinjiang – say they have no choice but to participate or risk having themselves or family members imprisoned. An assessment released this year by the United Nations human rights chief found serious human rights abuses that could amount to crimes against humanity. The US, which says the program is contributing to a Chinese government campaign of genocide, has stepped up pressure on the country with new sanctions and trade restrictions.

1. How did the Chinese program get started?

It has its origins in the Chinese ‘hukou’ registration system, which determines where people are allowed to live and work. In the late 1970s, leader Deng Xiaoping began opening the country to foreign investment and making it easier for workers to move around. Still, at the turn of the century, the number of “surplus agricultural workers” was estimated at 100 million to 200 million people. In 2002, the Communist Party decided to lift all restrictions on movement, as long as population flows were “orderly” and “guided”. The Department of Agriculture then urged local governments to promote vocational training for rural workers and link them to urban employment in a program seen as a tool to end poverty.

2. What’s different in Xinjiang?

Basically the political situation. Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking ethnic minority, make up about 45% of Xinjiang’s nearly 26 million people, according to census data released in 2021. They have long complained that their culture is under threat from an influx of ethnic Han Chinese, who make up about 42% of the population in the region, which is about the size of Alaska. (Han Chinese make up more than 90% of the country’s total 1.4 billion people.) In 2014, a spike in violence perpetrated by Uyghurs, primarily against Han Chinese, prompted President Xi Jinping to order the authorities ” strike first.” So they set up a separate system of “training centers” designed to de-radicalize ethnic minorities with extremist views by indoctrinating them with party ideology – while also teaching them jobs and Chinese language skills. A 2019 UN assessment said an estimated 1 million people “have reportedly been sent to internment facilities under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism and de-extremism’ policies since 2016.”

3. Is it still happening?

China – which strictly controls outsider access to the remote region – says its deradicalization centers are no longer functioning and everyone is now “graduated”. (It also says the region has been free of terror attacks for more than five years.) However, the 2022 UN report noted that the system’s legal and policy underpinnings “remain in place.” In addition, the original jobs program will continue as part of China’s poverty reduction efforts. Most participants are now “encouraged” by the government to apply.

4. How does the government do that?

According to scientists, including Rune Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, villages are allocated quotas for the number of workers to be transferred. Government officials are persistent in their flattery. Those who participate are sometimes given a degree of autonomy to choose the type of work they do. The threat of detention or other repercussions for the person and his family is often enough to ensure their cooperation. It is this intense persuasion that constitutes the coercive element, suggesting limited or no free will.

5. Where do Xinjiang’s workers go?

Most remain in the region, where production is still on the rise. In other cases, Uyghur workers are sent from Xinjiang to work in other provinces, removing them from their communities and families. This isolation in often unfriendly locations can slowly erode cultural and religious ties to their homes. The government said in 2020 that a total of 117,000 people had been sent from the region since 2014.

6. What is the link with genocide?

The US in 2021 labeled China’s crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as genocide, which is defined as specific acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo linked the labor issue to other charges, including forced sterilizations and indefinite detention without trial. This year’s UN review stopped short of accusing China of genocide, but cited “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. China has called such allegations “the lie of the century”.

7. What else has the US done?

Under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which took effect in June, the U.S. government assumes that anything made, even in part, in Xinjiang was produced using forced labor and cannot be imported unless companies “clearly and conclusively provide evidence to the contrary. That raises the prospect that the impact of the ban could extend to other Chinese regions as workers and goods from Xinjiang flow through the country. The new US law effectively replaces about a dozen executive orders banning the import of certain goods from Xinjiang, including cotton, tomatoes and solar panel materials. China has vowed to take countermeasures.

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

• The 2022 UN review of human rights issues in Xinjiang

• The 2021 US State Department report on Xinjiang.

• A Jamestown Foundation report by scholar Adrian Zenz on emerging trends in Xinjiang’s forced labor 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 sprawling police state and how it defends its actions in Xinjiang.

• QuickTakes on China’s new Silk Road and what it means to call something genocide.

–With help from Laurence Arnold and Jing Li.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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