Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply ChainsOctober 01, 2019
Government documents and interviews with ex-detainees suggest that forced labor increasingly forms an integral part of the government’s efforts to “reeducate” Muslim minorities and erase their culture and religion. The government calls for “cleansing” ethnic minorities of their extremist thoughts through not only “reeducation,” but also work. The government’s determination to move both ex-detainees and hundreds of thousands of poor minorities out of their traditional roles and into manufacturing positions is leading to forced labor, seemingly at a significant scale. This massive effort derives from the belief that the combination of “reeducation” and work will make minorities more like mainstream Han Chinese by detaching them from their culture and religion and strengthening their loyalty to the Communist Party. As a result, both ex-detainees and poor minorities are being forced to work in Xinjiang’s factories as part of the government’s efforts to eradicate minority religion and culture. Forced labor combines with widespread surveillance and detention to accomplish the government’s goal of stability through the eradication of minority culture and religion.
A cheap and compliant minority labor force not only supports government stability” efforts but is an important element of the government’s economic plans for Xinjiang. State documents indicate that the government is in the process of significantly increasing textile and apparel manufacturing in the region through a mix of company subsidies and underpaid workers. Xinjiang will then be an export hub for the Belt and Road Initiative.
FORCED LABOR IN XINJIANG IS NOT NEW. Nor are efforts to incorporate ethnic minorities there into “modern” work such as manufacturing through “rural poverty reduction” programs. Indeed, the Chinese government has long seen the incorporation of ethnic minorities into manufacturing as a vital method to bring ethnic minorities into the non-religious, mainstream Chinese fold (“Sinicize” them), thus diminishing the links to their culture and religion and deterring unrest. These efforts for the most part failed because minorities showed limited interest in voluntarily joining this workforce. Xi Jinping’s top policy priority is eradicating poverty, and enormous resources are being deployed to this end.
This policy, combined with efforts to sinicize the minority population, means that government plans to move Xinjiang’s minorities into manufacturing jobs are increasingly ambitious and are being unrolled at a time when minorities are being surveilled, detained, and terrorized. The potential for coercion is enormous. Indeed, both government documents and interviews of ex-detainees and their families indicate a risk that many of the minorities moving into manufacturing are doing so under the threat of detention. Perhaps because of the urgency with which the government is pursuing secularization and security, evidence suggests that minorities are being compelled to work in unprecedented numbers as the government’s “reeducation” and detention program and “rural poverty reduction programs” coincide.
Forced labor affecting ethnic minorities swept up in the effort to securitize Xinjiang falls into three main categories:
• Coerced labor by the rural poor,
• Forced labor by current or ex-detainees, and
• Forced labor by prisoners.
Private companies and state-owned enterprises are vital to the development of this industry. The government offers a range of incentives to companies to incorporate minorities, who are believed to be less efficient workers,39 into their operations. The government explicitly permits companies in Xinjiang to pay minorities below the minimum wage. This appears to be carried out in practice. One ex-detainee who we interviewed noted that poor civilians “recruited” to work were being paid the same as former detainees of “reeducation camps,” which ranged from 300/400 to 1,300 RMB for an entire year (the monthly minimum wage in Xinjiang varies from 1,460 to 1,820 RMB per month). We were told that they sometimes were not paid at all.
Our interviews confirm that at least some of these minorities entering the workforce through poverty alleviation programs are indeed doing so against their will. We interviewed multiple ex-detainees who were forced to work in factories that included a substantial local ethnic minority workforce. Some of the latter, who were part of the poverty alleviation effort, informed the ex-detainees that they had been told they would be sent to a detention facility if they did not agree to work in the factory. Under international law, work conducted under such a threat would likely be considered forced labor. In other instances, the threat of being sent to detention may simply be implied, given the overall state of repression in Xinjiang.
Minorities being moved into manufacturing may in some cases be treated similarly to ex-detainees. One of our interviews indicated that civilians who were recruited as part of poverty alleviation efforts were forced to reside in the same dormitories as former detainees if they lived more than 15 km away from the factory. They were also often transferred to and from factories in buses along with former detainees from “reeducation centers.” Our interviews suggest that these dormitories are secured, and the inhabitants are not free to come and go. The fact that poverty alleviation program workers are required to live in secured dormitories far from home with ex-detainees suggests the arrangement may not be voluntary.
To incentivize companies to hire ethnic minorities out of “reeducation” centers, the government provides a significant number of subsidies. These subsidies take the form of monetary compensation or other benefits, such as tax exemptions and electricity subsidies. Indeed, the government issued a promise in March 2018 to provide a subsidy of $260 for each ex-detainee a factory trains. In some instances, companies also receive shipping cost subsidies equivalent to 4 percent of their sales volumes.
This, plus the lower wage requirements, lowers costs and creates a competitive advantage for those companies. For example, public documents advertised an industrial textile and apparel park known to house factories using workers who went through vocational training, including in detention facilities. The publicity materials state that costs in the industrial park are 30 percent lower than in other parts of China. This is surprising because manufacturing in Xinjiang has historically been prohibitively expensive and the workers are half as efficient as in mainland China. It suggests that a combination of government subsidies and underpaid and unpaid workers—both ex-detainees and the rural minority poor—have convinced companies to locate their factories to Xinjiang, which the government believes will also contribute to long-term stability.