Forced Labour in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China

Lee Williams is the Regulatory Specialist at Minespider
Lee Williams
On December 23rd 2021, President Biden signed into law Bill H.R.6256, banning imports from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, from entering the US. In this article we’re looking at why there’s a concern about forced labour in this region, and give a summary of what is included in Bill H.R.6256.
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About the author
Lee Williams is the Regulatory Specialist at Minespider
Lee Williams
Lee's career has extended from private medical practice to associate medical director for Michelin, and from President of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Association of Nova Scotia, to chair of the Cobalt REACH Consortium technical committee. He is passionate about product stewardship.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. - Desmond Tutu

In our previous article we looked at forced labour as a global malaise. We considered what recent international activity was addressing forced labour, and we noted that in July 2021 the United States Senate had passed a Bill on to the US House of Representatives. That Bill proposed a ban on all goods from or made in China’s Xinjiang region, unless importers can prove they were not made with forced labor. The blog concluded with a reference to forced labour in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. What is special about this region and why is there international concern about forced labour in this region? What happened to the US Senate Bill?

A brief history of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region

Tangbula Grassland, Nilek County, Kazak Autonomous Prefecture of Ili, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China in October 2018

China is divided into 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, and four municipalities. The Autonomous Regions each have a local government, and that government is under the direction of the central government. The autonomous regions (Xinjian, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi; and Ningxia) are located along China’s border with its foreign neighbours, and each contains a significant minority ethnic population.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is located in northwestern China. It is bordered by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The land has been inhabited by Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, since at least the second century BC.

Autonomous regions of China

They established kingdoms in north-central Mongolia in the 8th century, and then in the Turfan Depression (in the northern part of Xinjiang) until the 13th Century. The Uyghurs have been a primarily pastoral, village-dwelling Sunni Muslim people. They inhabit a network of oases in the valleys and slopes of the mountain systems that run between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, north of the Taklamakan Desert. This area once formed part of the Silk Road.

In the second half of the 18th century the land was colonized by Qing dynasty forces from China. In the subsequent hundred years, the land witnessed many uprisings by native populations against foreign rule, and in the middle of the 19th century, Uyghurs established an independent state, Kashgaria. The Qing dynasty re-conquered the land in 1878, and incorporated it into China under the name of Xinjiang province in 1884. The region was ruled by Chinese warlords independent from the Chinese central government after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. During the years between 1931 and 1934, there were independence movements against the rule of the warlords. The Uyghurs established their first Republic of East Turkestan in 1933. This republic was soon overthrown by Chinese warlords supported by the Soviet Union. In September 1944, Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups fought against foreign rule, and on November 12, 1994, re-established the East Turkestan Republic. The new Republic lasted five years. It fell victim to diplomatic maneuvering between communist Russia, the new People’s Republic of China, and the Western powers. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China took control of the East Turkestan Republic, and renamed the area the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  

The Han people make up 92% of the Chinese population. The remaining 8% of the population are of some 55 official ethnicities. The majority of the ethnic minorities live in the autonomous regions. Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has, since ancient times, been populated by many ethnic groups, nomadic tribes and nations. By the end of the 19th century, 13 major ethnic communities had established themselves there, including: the Uyghurs, Hans, Kazaks, Mongolians, and Tajiks. The Uyghurs comprised the majority, and this multiethnic pattern remains today.  Prior to the establishment of the Autonomous Region, the Chinese Han population made up only a small minority of the East Turkestan Republic, however in the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has encouraged emigration from other provinces in China to Xinjiang. The Han population has increased from some hundred thousand to 10.9 million of the region’s 25.8 million inhabitants in 2020.  

The Shanghai Agreement

In 2001, the People’s Republic of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed the Shanghai Agreement . This document identifies what they called “three evils” to their societies: ethnic separatism; religious extremism; and violent terrorism. It outlines measures that the countries agree to undertake to treat these ‘evils' (also referred to as deeds). These measures included:

  • cooperate in the sphere of prevention, search and suppression of the deeds.
  • consider the deeds, as crimes entailing extradition.
  • take such measures which may be necessary, including relevant cases in the field of national legislation, to ensure that the deeds were not subject under any circumstances to acquittal on consideration of exclusively political, philosophic, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other character, and entailed punishment in accordance with their seriousness.
  • carry out cooperation and render assistance to each other by way of: 1) exchange of information; 2) execution of inquiries on carrying out operational search actions; 3) development and adoption of coordinated measures for prevention, detection and forestalling of the deeds.

The Shanghai Agreement, drafted by China, was an ominous harbinger of the oppression that the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang would come to experience.  

The “Counterterrorism Strike Hard Campaign” 

Following a visit to Xinjiang in April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping argued that Islamic extremism had infected a large swath of Uyghur society. He called on party officials to chase ‘violent terrorists’ like rats and to, strike early, strike small, strike fast and use an iron fist to destroy [them]’. In May 2014, the Xinjiang Party Committee launched a year-long Counterterrorism Strike Hard Campaign in Xinjiang. The People’s Daily reported the activity in Xinjiang, as the ‘main battlefield’ of a national campaign against terror, [employing] mass mobilisation (全民动员), tough measures and extraordinary methods

Through 2017 up to 1 million Uyghurs and other indigenous people in Xinjiang had been rounded up and interned in what Chinese authorities called ‘vocational education and training centres’. Chen Quanguo, the newly appointed Xinjiang Party Committee Secretary instructed these ‘re-education camps’ to, teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”. The new regional leader established a five-year plan to radically alter Xinjiang society: to stabilise the situation during 2017; to consolidate during 2018; to normalise during 2019; and to achieve ‘comprehensive stability’ (全面稳定) by the end of 2021. The 2017 campaign also expanded to include mass forced labour assignment, mandatory birth-control measures and more intense indoctrination.

Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from rural parts of southern Xinjiang have been labelled ‘surplus labour’ (富余劳动力) or ‘poverty-stricken labour’ (贫困劳动力) and sent to work in factories in other parts of Xinjiang or other provinces in China. Some 600,000 ‘surplus labourers’ from southern Xinjiang were trained and transferred to new locations for work. The working conditions for transferred Uyghur labourers includes the following: 

  • living in segregated dormitories. 
  • receiving ideological and Chinese-language training outside of working hours. 
  • prohibited from practising their religion 
  • subject to a constant real-time surveillance system
  • assigned a bilingual minder
  • not allowed to leave their work assignments or go home without the approval of both the county and prefecture level labour transfer task forces

Transferred workers are typically between 18 and 40 years old. They leave children, elderly relatives and livestock behind to be ‘looked after’ by state care. Xinjiang’s Department of Human Resources and Social Security is in charge of job assignments, and directs member departments to implement transfer quotas. The department also gives subsidies to participating companies to compensate for expenses incurred in accepting transferred workers.

HOTAN, CHINA - APRIL 27 2019. Uyghur women work in a cloth factory in Hotan county, Xinjiang province, China.

Several quality studies and references documenting the atrocities in Xinjiang have recently been published. The reader is referred to the work of The Australian Strategic Policy GroupChristian Solidarity Worldwide; Human Rights Watch ; Radio Free Asia ; the Right Practice ; and the United States Department of State, Office To Monitor And Combat Trafficking In Persons, as examples. These and other sources document activities that are completely contrary to the assurances of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

For those of us fortunate to live in a country where human rights are respected and even taken for granted, it is important and necessary to consider just how remote these basic human principles are for the Uyghur population. In particular, note these articles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and how they have been disregarded by China:

Article 4 - No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

Article 5 - No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 9 - No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 12 - No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13 - 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. 2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 18 - Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and her Commission have been studying the human rights situation in China for the past three years.  Her report is due for release in the coming weeks. This is an important moment in the history of human rights as assured by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Bill H.R.6256

In the previous blog we noted that In July 2021, the US Senate passed a Bill (Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act) that would ban all goods from or made in China’s Xinjiang region unless importers can prove they were not made with forced labor. That Bill proceeded to the House of Representatives, and following Committee discussion, was replaced with a revised Bill. Bill H.R. 6256 was passed by the House on 14 Dec 2021, and proceeded to the US Senate. The Senate passed the Bill two days later, on 16 Dec 2021. The vote was by Unanimous Consent. The Bill then proceeded to the Desk of the President. President Biden signed Bill H.R.6256 into Law on December 23rd, 2021.

In summary, Bill H.R.6256 - To ensure that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China do not enter the United States market, and for other purposes announces actions:

  • to strengthen the prohibition against the importation of goods made with forced labor, 
  • to lead the international community in ending forced labor practices, 
  • to coordinate with Mexico and Canada to prohibit the importation of goods produced in whole or in part by forced or compulsory labor,
  • to actively work to prevent, publicly denounce, and end human trafficking including with respect to forced labor, whether sponsored by the government of a foreign country or not, 
  • to regard the prevention of atrocities as it is in the national interest of the United States, including efforts to prevent torture, enforced disappearances, severe deprivation of liberty, including mass internment, arbitrary detention, and widespread and systematic use of forced labor, and persecution targeting any identifiable ethnic or religious group; and
  • to address gross violations of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: a) through bilateral diplomatic channels and multilateral institutions and b) using all the authorities available to the United States Government, including visa and financial sanctions, export restrictions, and import controls.

Bill H.R. 6256,calls for a public consultation period, and a public hearing with witness testimony. This will be followed by an assessment of the risk of importing goods mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part with forced labor in the People’s Republic of China, including from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or made by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tibetans, or members of other persecuted groups in any other part of the People’s Republic of China. The assessment will look at Chinese government labor schemes such as ‘‘pairing assistance’’ and ‘‘poverty alleviation’’ that attempt to hide the actual use of forced labor.  The assessment will itemize the entities that mine, produce, or manufacture any goods, wares, articles and merchandise using forced labour. The assessment will also include the entities involved in the recruitment, transport, or reception of members of persecuted groups out of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The assessment will list the high-priority sectors for enforcement, including cotton, tomatoes and polysilicon. Additionally the assessment will include the tools and technologies that can be adopted to accurately identify and trace goods made in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region entering at any of the ports of the United States.  

In the previous blog we mentioned that transparency is the key to bringing secrecy to light.  Supply chains are complex, interlinked, and currently, difficult to document. This complexity will be discussed in the next articles of this series. We will look at one commodity, polysilicon, its supply chain, and the interconnection of suppliers along that supply chain. We will also look in some detail at companies that have been identified as using Uyghur forced labour in their processes, and we will consider the concept of “rebuttable presumption”, as it applies to goods mined, produced, or manufactured in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

"In the midst of darkness, light persists.” – Mahatma Gandhi

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