Database Entry: Laundering Cotton: How Xinjiang Cotton Is Obscured in International Supply Chains
Internment Forced Labor

Laundering Cotton: How Xinjiang Cotton Is Obscured in International Supply Chains

November 01, 2021
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The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government estimates that it has employed as many as 2.6 million minoritized citizens through state-sponsored labor programs. The government justifies its “surplus labor” (剩余劳动力) and “labor transfer” (劳动力转移) programs as “poverty alleviation” (扶贫); however, they do not operate as poverty alleviation programs in other parts of China do. In 2014, resistance to government assistance programs was named on a list of “religious extremist activities” disseminated by local governments across the Uyghur Region. Regional and local government directives indicate that refusal to participate in poverty alleviation in XUAR is considered a sign of the “three evils”—terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism—which are punishable by internment or imprisonment. Labor recruiters and social security bureaus are instructed to go door-to-door and “employ all those who should be employed.” The labor recruiters harass farmers and those deemed to be “surplus labor” until they submit to being transferred. In order to “relieve migrant labourers of their worries,” the government has created nurseries and elder care facilities to manage the families who are left behind by transferred laborers. The government also transfers land into cooperatives (ostensibly for a small rental fee to the Uyghur landholder), purportedly to liberate farmers to move away from their hometowns for better opportunities in factories, though sometimes they are assigned to continue working on the land they used to farm themselves.

It is clear from Chinese state media reports as well as government-funded research that state-sponsored labor transfer programs do not provide workers the freedom of choice of work that is guaranteed them and that, even when unwilling, farmers are compelled by the state to be transferred for industrial work, for the express purpose of being assimilated. When they are assigned to work in factories, Uyghur and other minoritized workers are often unpaid or paid far less than promised.

Erzhan Qurban was 42 years old in 2020 when the latest update on his status was published by the online Xinjiang Victims Database (XVD). Qurban (entry 120) was a Chinese citizen of Kazakh descent who held permanent residency in Kazakhstan and had made a living as a farmer there. At the end of 2017, when he visited his elderly mother in China, government agents confiscated his documents, after which they sent him to a detention center and then to a re-education camp. In the camp, he was locked in a cell with ten others and was forbidden from talking. Sometimes the detainees were forced to sit on plastic stools in rigid postures for hours at a time. Guards kept watch 24 hours a day. In November 2018, he was released and sent to work in a glove factory in the Yining County Jiafang Clothing Industrial Park. He was told, “If you don’t go, we’ll send you back to the [re-education camp].” This was clearly not a legitimate option for him, as internment had been excruciating for him and his health had deteriorated in the camp. In the factory to which he was assigned, he was paid CNY 300 for the entire period he worked there: 53 days.

For this analysis we have consulted a subset of XVD testimonies that mention labor, specific factories, indicators of forced labor, or indications of a transfer from camp to labor. The sum of the testimonies selected in this manner is 525. The volume of the testimonies provides a portrait of individual experiences and, at the same time, reveals patterns in the way people are detained and assigned to forced labor, whether within internment camps and prisons or outside of the internment and prison systems.

The majority of the 525 testimonies included in the forced labor subset of the Xinjiang Victims Database reveal ID papers unexpectedly and suddenly confiscated, which later led to being taken into custody by government officers. For instance, Amanzhol Qisa (entry 1684) was sent to re-education camp in April 2018 and was released in April 2019 and then transferred to a clothes factory. She was paid CNY 800 each month (less than half the minimum wage rate), but her documents were held by the local police, restricting her freedom of movement and making her vulnerable to coercive labor transfer.

In many of the cases recorded in the XVD, former internees are released from the camps directly into labor placements. Razila Nural’s (entry 123) family learned in August 2018 that she had been officially “released” and sent to the Xinjiang Jiuxu Clothing Co. Ltd. factory to work, but she continued to live in a camp, where, according to her family, she was only permitted to sleep two to three hours a day. Some people are moved elsewhere to work, as in the case of Ibrahim Ayup (entry 4079). Ayup was interned at the end of 2017; in May 2020, he was moved to a textile factory, where according to his brother, he was forced to work. This was also the case for Aytulla Razaq (entry 1751) who was taken to an internment camp in April 2017 and was sent to a textile factory the next year. Abduweli Tohti Arish (entry 3156), a computer programmer before he was interned, was taken to a camp in October 2017. According to his brother, he was transferred to a clothing factory outside Urumqi in late 2019, where he worked the entire week, going home on Saturday and returning on Sunday. His brother wrote that he allegedly made fifty items of clothes per day. For some the confinement period is relatively short, only to be succeeded soon afterwards by imposed work. Kunikei Zhanibek (entry 1396) was put in a camp in the summer of 2018, released in December that year, and was soon afterwards sent first to a carpet factory, then to a factory producing airplane towels.

An examination of the salaries provided to workers in the XVD forced labor subset suggests that if forced laborers are paid at all, it is far below the 2017-2020 minimum wage of CNY 1820 a month and often subjected to deductions that reduce the salary to next to nothing. The promised rate of the salaries, the actual payment of salaries, and the extent of any compulsory deductions are important factors and indicators to establish forced or compulsory labor. Dina Nurdybai (entry 7774), who was a trained seamstress before her internment and was forced to serve as a sewing teacher, was reportedly paid only CNY 9 per month. Zhenishan Azihan (entry 2298) received similarly low pay for her work. She was “released in January 2019 from the camp, but now is under forced labor, gets paid only CNY 40 a month.” Other testimonies indicate monthly salaries of CNY 300 (entry 1723), CNY 600 (entries 120, 1290), CNY 650 (entry 1251) and CNY 1300 (entry 3082), all far below the already meager minimum wage for the region. Compulsory deductions leave some workers with hardly any salary left (entry 13587). Patigul Muhemmed (entry 13587) was reportedly working “in a textile factory in the Urumqi area sewing pearls on dresses for export to Malaysia.” In the victim’s status, the XVD records: “According to Patigul, it is a very big factory, where she stays in a dormitory and is provided food, which Patigul described as ‘disgusting.’” The testimony continues: “Patigul is earning between 1500 RMB and 2000 RMB per month, but she has to pay 1500 RMB every month for the food provided to her in the factory, making her basically work for free.” Several statements refer to obligatory payments that families have to pay for the victims’ meals and clothing while interned, amounting to CNY 200-300 (e.g., entries 478, 1626), although in one case it was as much as CNY 1000 (entry 208). Berzat Bolathan (entry 1626) was verbally sentenced to seventeen years in prison. While in prison, he has now been conscripted for forced labor; family members have to pay CNY 200 per month or more for his meals.

Workers also state that they are obliged to memorize and repeat CCP party propaganda and study Mandarin after work for several hours (e.g., entries 1336, 7774). Dina Nurdybai’s tesimony also mentions compulsory classes, recording that “detainees at the second camp in Nilka would work from 8am to noon, have lunch, and then work again from 1:30pm to 6:30pm. After work, they were required to take classes inside the residential building, memorizing and repeating Chinese Communist Party propaganda and studying Mandarin.”

The XVD database also provides evidence that cotton picking can be compulsory as part of a forced labor scheme for students. This forced labor operates outside of the prison and internment system, but it is recorded as a form of victimization in the XVD. Nebijan Rozi (entry 14335) was a sixteen-year-old high school student who was sent from Kashgar Prefecture to Aksu Prefecture as part of a group of 2,000 students conscripted to pick cotton, probably in October 2020. He died in a fire in the dormitory in which he and thirty-one other classmates were sleeping. He was buried by the local authorities and none of his family members were able to attend the funeral. His older brother Abduqahar Rozi (entry 14336) was also sent to Aksu Prefecture to pick cotton as part of the same conscripted labor program. He is reportedly still alive and still part of the forced labor program in Aksu. Their father, Rozi Tohti, (entry 14337) was arrested and sent to an internment camp in 2017. He was still in some form of detention in February 2021. He was reportedly never notified that his younger son, Nebijan, had died during his conscription for picking cotton.