Forced labor of Uyghurs and other Indigenous minorities continues to fuel manufacturing in China’s Xinjiang region, according to a flurry of investigations, including a critical United Nations report. The research also reveals that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is largely acting through the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) to repress the ethnic groups.
Although an increasing number of nations and international bodies have called out the CCP and increased sanctions against the exploitative regime, stronger measures may be needed to curtail the abusive practices, which include torture and genocide, the reports indicated.
“The Chinese government is interpreting the distinct identity, religion and culture of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, who are predominantly Muslim, as both a national security threat and as a cultural threat to Chinese unity,” Irina Bukarin, the lead analyst on a May 2022 report by the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), based in Washington, D.C., told National Public Radio. “And as such, they’ve been imprisoning Uyghurs and forcing them into coercive labor conditions, uprooting them from the communities, and sending them to work in fields and factories hundreds of miles from their families.”
The XPCC functions as a quasi-regional government, paramilitary organization, prison operator, media empire and educational system and is one of the world’s largest state-run enterprises, according to a July 2022 report by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. “The central government of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] considers the XPCC a ‘special system of integration of government, military and enterprise.’ ”
The XPCC subdues the Uyghurs and exploits their labor for ventures that supply the PRC — and much of the world — with products and services. These efforts have intensified under the leadership of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, who claims Uyghurs are potentially disruptive or even terrorists.
In late August 2022, three months after visiting Xinjiang, then-U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet released a long-awaited report that asserted the PRC’s detention of Uyghurs and other minorities may constitute crimes against humanity. The 46-page assessment noted rights violations, including torture, that demand worldwide attention.
Beijing, which had demanded that Bachelet not release the report, portrayed her findings as part of a Western campaign to smear its reputation. A Chinese diplomat said the PRC would no longer cooperate with the U.N. human rights office, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
“What’s happening in Xinjiang is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time,” Chinese legal scholar and human rights activist Teng Biao said. “For most of the people being detained in the internment camps, their only crime is being a [Uyghur], a Muslim, or refusing to give up their cultural or religious identity — like wearing long beards, wearing veils in public places, and refusing to watch state television, refusing to drink alcohol, having more babies, having been to foreign countries, applying for passports, possessing a Quran, talking to relatives or family members living overseas, so on and so on,” Teng said in a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) virtual discussion in July 2021. Teng has a doctorate in legal philosophy from Peking University and taught at China University of Political Science and Law before leaving his native country.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has imprisoned more than 1 million people in Xinjiang and subjected others to surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor and mandatory sterilizations, the CFR, an independent think tank, reported. Aerial photographs published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) showed a dramatic expansion of a vast network of government internment camps in the region from April 2017 to August 2018. CCP officials deny that the so-called vocational training centers infringe on Uyghurs’ human rights.
Many detainees labor under conditions that “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity,” Tomoya Obokata, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, concluded in mid-August 2022.
The CCP wants Uyghurs to conform to its standardized version of Chinese identity, abandoning their culture, religious beliefs and any desire for independence. The XPCC encourages Han Chinese, the nation’s largest ethnic group, to move to Xinjiang and strives to suppress Uyghur birth rates, according to The Guardian newspaper.
After hearing from internment camp survivors and experts on the region, the Uyghur Tribunal, a U.K.-based group, determined that birth control and sterilization measures imposed on the Uyghurs constitute genocide.
Geoffrey Nice, a U.K. lawyer who chaired hearings that preceded the tribunal’s nonbinding ruling in December 2021, said that the panel found the PRC carried out “a deliberate, systematic and concerted policy” to bring about “long-term reduction of Uyghur and other ethnic minority populations,” according to the BBC. The panel also found evidence of crimes against humanity, torture and sexual violence.
The panel concluded that Xi and other senior Chinese officials bear “primary responsibility” for abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, Nice said.
Although nations, including the United States, have banned the import of goods produced in Xinjiang, such sanctions may have limited success. “When discussing the XPCC specifically, its goals are not purely commercial, so its repressive behavior is unlikely to be changed by impacts to its businesses alone,” Nicole Morgret, a human rights analyst with C4ADS, told FORUM.
‘Criminalization of normal behavior’
The CCP, through the XPCC, controls nearly every aspect of life in Xinjiang. Security cameras are everywhere, and people are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. “There’s pervasive and highly intrusive surveillance, meaning that party officials literally can now peer into the homes and even the beds of Uyghurs,” James Leibold, a senior fellow at ASPI, said during the CFR virtual event.
According to multiple reports, the XPCC has taken many people’s property and forced them into factory or farm work while banning native languages, religious practices and ethnic dress. Resisters are detained in work camps where they are indoctrinated in Han Chinese culture. Many Uyghurs have simply disappeared. Vestiges of their lives are destroyed. Possessions considered valuable, such as arable land, are confiscated.
“The region, its people and their identities are seen as critical security threats to China’s cultural integrity, the stability of the state’s borders, and the absolute authority of the CCP,” the Helena Kennedy Centre reported. “In the last five years, in particular, the XPCC has played a critical role in suppressing Uyghur life, culture, and identity.” The XPCC’s tactics are “largely unprecedented among global political or corporate configurations; all analogies fail to capture its expansive function, reach, and powers,” the report found.
Chen Quanguo, then the CCP chief in Xinjiang, issued orders in 2017 and 2018 to “round up all those who should be rounded up,” which led to internment camp construction and prison expansions. Chinese authorities barred journalists and foreign investigators from the facilities. Amid worldwide criticism, the CCP continued sending people to prisons and extrajudicial detention facilities, Xinjiang experts told CFR.
Darren Byler, an anthropologist who has studied the Uyghurs, told the AP in July 2021 that many detainees had not committed “real crimes by any standards” and were incarcerated without due process. “It’s the criminalization of normal behavior,” he said.
Indoctrination also takes place beyond the walls of government facilities. “We should bear in mind that human rights abuse is … also in daily lives of all Uyghurs and other Muslim and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” Teng said in the CFR discussion. Outside the camps, Uyghurs “have continued to suffer from an increasingly severe crackdown and totalitarian surveillance by the Chinese authorities.”
Advocacy groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse Beijing of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Among the abuses are forced labor, sterilizations and mandatory compliance with CCP assimilation, including restrictions on religious practices. The repression seeks to render Uyghurs docile and dependent on the state, the Helena Kennedy Centre reported, amounting to “a reign of terror.”
Who are the Uyghurs?
Although the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region comprises almost one-sixth of China’s land mass, its 26 million residents account for less than 2% of the PRC’s populace of 1.4 billion. It is home to about 12 million Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslim, along with other ethnic groups and transplanted Han Chinese, according to the BBC. Ruled for centuries by warlords and various regimes, Xinjiang’s Indigenous peoples congregated mostly in a smattering of oases in the land of rugged mountains and vast deserts.
Uyghur, Turkic and other groups who traditionally have lived in this region have much stronger cultural and historical ties with people in Central Asia to the west than with Chinese to the east. Historically, some Chinese states engaged with this area through diplomacy and trade; others sought to conquer and impose China’s political and social systems, as in Xinjiang today.
Conquered by the Qing Empire in the 18th century, Xinjiang has been an “autonomous region” of the PRC since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. The PRC in 1954 established the XPCC, an organization initially composed largely of former People’s Liberation Army soldiers. Its mission: control the Indigenous population and exploit the region’s labor and resources with a “gun in one hand” and a “plough in the other,” according to the Helena Kennedy Centre. Disbanded in 1975 following the PRC’s Cultural Revolution, the XPCC was reestablished in 1981 and took on an enhanced role as a corporate conglomerate under direct control of the central government.
Suppression of Uyghurs who demanded independence in 2009 preceded today’s repressive government practices. The CCP cast the uprising’s supporters as terrorists and, exploiting global fears of terrorism, rebuffed critics of the Uyghurs’ treatment, according to The Strategy Bridge, a nonprofit online journal and podcast.
Since its crackdown began, the Chinese government has cited as justification the “three evils” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism, the U.S. State Department reported.
The XPCC, meanwhile, has evolved into a global operation connected to thousands of companies. Initially an agricultural enterprise producing crops including cotton, tomatoes and peppers, its interests now extend to energy, mining, chemicals, oil and gas extraction, logistics, apparel, electronics, wine, food processing, insurance, and tourism. A major artery of the PRC’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme cuts through the region, providing access to markets in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
The CCP wants to dilute the Uyghur population, especially in southern Xinjiang, and ultimately erase its culture and religion, ASPI’s Leibold told the CFR. It has destroyed mosques and cemeteries, and Xi has said that Islam in the PRC must be “in the Chinese context,” the state-run Xinhua News reported in July 2022. Uyghurs, whose language is related to Turkish, are forced to learn Mandarin, including children separated from their families and sent to boarding schools or orphanages, where they also are subjected to CCP propaganda, the U.S. State Department reported in June 2022.
“From cradle to grave, Uyghur people are subjected to centrally directed indoctrination delivered by the XPCC,” according to the Helena Kennedy Centre. “The XPCC’s deliberate program of social engineering requires that every minoritized citizen shed their cultural heritage, language and religious beliefs in favor of Han practices and Xi Jinping ideology.”
Governments, businesses and consumers worldwide help sustain forced labor in Xinjiang, though many don’t know it. The XPCC has direct or indirect holdings with thousands of corporate entities worldwide, according to data provider Sayari, making it difficult, though not impossible, to determine whether a product is connected to the XPCC. “The forced labor and abuse that Turkic peoples in Xinjiang face does not stay within the region’s borders, but spills into the world through global systems of trade and finance. These global ties can allow for increased profits at the expense of human rights, and unless countered, mean that international stakeholders tacitly enable such crimes,” C4ADS reported in May 2022.
Another C4ADS report, released in late June 2022, concluded Xinjiang is fast becoming a center of Chinese manufacturing. The report said 4,480 manufacturing companies were founded there in 2021, up from 1,604 in 2009.
Much of the XPCC’s growth is a result of the CCP’s ability to control the narrative. Through propaganda and tapping into fear, intimidation and racism, the government-directed corporation has flourished to the detriment of its Uyghur laborers, Teng said in the CFR discussion. Former camp detainee Omir Bekali, a Uyghur who now lives in the Netherlands, said Chinese people “don’t know what’s really going on” because of the CCP’s censorship apparatus. “If you want to know the reality, speak to the victims,” Bekali told the AP in September 2022. “The government controls the media, they keep on saying lies.”
Reliable information and coordinated worldwide sanctions are key to exposing the XPCC’s tactics, Foreign Affairs magazine reported in July 2021. “Nobody should be under any illusion that it will be easy to alter the Chinese government’s behavior in Xinjiang. Beijing is unlikely to ever admit it is feeling the heat of international pressure or changing its policies toward the Uyghur people.”
Although some human rights groups and Uyghur exiles criticized Bachelet for not declaring the CCP’s atrocities in Xinjiang as genocide, international attention generated by her findings could still have an effect. “The U.N. report added little to what is already known, but the fact that it came from the world’s leading human rights body, of not one government but hundreds, gave relief and hope to many victims,” according to The Guardian.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the PRC to follow Bachelet’s recommendations, including releasing people detained arbitrarily and revealing the location of Uyghurs in Xinjiang who have not been heard from by relatives abroad, Radio Free Asia reported in September 2022. The U.N. report also urged the PRC to investigate alleged human rights abuses in detention centers.
Additionally, experts say, international boycotts of products from Xinjiang, while moderately successful, must be strengthened. “The necessary data and methods for combating financial support of oppression in Xinjiang are available, and it is time for stakeholders to make use of them,” according to the C4ADS report in June 2022. XPCC products reach domestic and global markets in various ways, the report said. The corporation’s subsidiaries trade publicly on Chinese financial markets. XPCC also has foreign subsidiaries, and it sells directly to domestic and regional companies, which feed products into the global supply chain. “Awareness of and attention to these avenues for moving products can reduce reliance on them,” the report said.
However, banning products made with forced labor in Xinjiang poses a dilemma if it conflicts with a nation’s compelling domestic needs. Take solar panels, for instance. The PRC dominates the world’s supply of solar panels, but U.S. Customs agents have seized Chinese-made products since the federal Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act took effect in June 2022. While this affects the ability of the U.S. to implement its August 2022 commitment to transition to renewable energy, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol between June 2022 and January 2023 identified more than 2,692 shipments as potentially violating terms of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Nearly half of the shipments held were solar panels or related components.
It’s a quandary similar to one faced by nations that condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine yet hesitate to boycott much-needed Russian oil and minerals. Despite such hurdles, coordinated international action shows that the world won’t ignore the CCP’s orchestrated elimination of an entire ethnoreligious group, Foreign Affairs reported in July 2021. “The Uyghur people deserve nothing less.”