Last Saturday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report that has since received international attention and concern. Titled Uyghurs For Sale, the report details three case studies of different factories or companies in China which have become increasingly reliant on extremely oppressive labor conditions for growth. China, for its part, claims that the prison-factories and reeducation camps are part of a national unity program that graduates are often thankful for. The government also claims that Uyghurs, if left to their own devices, will become a threat to the Han population of China due to their alleged ties to Islamic extremism. I wasn’t able to find reports of Uyghur Islamic terrorism in China, but I have found reports of civil strife and riots, which were sometimes fatal. To their credit, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t seem to have the same kind of animosity towards other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, so it may be the case that the Uyghurs, in the eyes of Chinese authorities, pose some kind of threat that the other minorities do not. With that said, the treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government has drawn international condemnation for years.
This latest report details the degree to which international corporations are taking advantage of and reinforcing China’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs. The alliance between the Chinese government, with its ambitions for national unity, and global corporate capitalism, with its insatiable desire for profit, is a terrifying development on the world stage. In the report, which draws on local reports from within China as well as original research into corporate manufacturing structure, an image of a totalitarian capitalist hellscape emerges. Prison-workers aren’t allowed to visit their families, express religious freedom, or leave the factory outside of specific times. This repression isn’t so mild as people being denied prayer breaks from their work, but rather people being threatened with 3-5 years of “reeducation” in prison-camps if they are found in possession of their holy book. Most citizens of countries with a first amendment or protections against religious expression should be disgusted that crucial religious artifacts are being designated contraband by an all-powerful surveillance state.
ASPI’s report is good, but the solutions outlined in the report are severely lacking. The strongest solution I’d recommend in the report is the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s standards on forced labor by the United States and China. Unfortunately, that proposal has existed since 1930, and neither the US nor China has ever made moves to adopt it. Other proposals in the report seemed a bit far fetched. The proposal for China to recognize the rights of Uyghurs and cease all forced labor activities doesn’t have a chance of happening. A similar proposal was given to the international business community, inviting them to visit factories and ensure that workers are being treated well. These proposals are silly because they’re asking the very entities that formed an alliance and knowingly created this problem to please stop because it has been harmful to a group that they wanted to harm. Global capitalism wants weak, desperate workers. That is why those factories were shipped to China in the first place from places like the American rust belt. And the Chinese government actually wants the ethnic and religious heritage of the Uyghurs to be destroyed.
If the suffering of the Uyghurs is the goal of both corporate capitalism and the Chinese government, we would do well to look for solutions that either alter the goals of the Chinese government and global capitalism, or we should recognize these entities as adversaries in the fight for emancipation and dignity for all workers. In my estimation, China will only stop reeducating Muslims when it rediscovers the value of a multiethnic society (not likely) or it feels that its reeducation is doing more harm than good to Chinese interests. Right now, that’s not the case. Uyghurs could try to organize and demand better conditions, which would reduce the marginal benefit of replacing Han workers with Uyghurs in the eyes of the Chinese state. Uyghurs could try to organize a backlash, demonstrating that reeducation will actually heighten radicalism, which would remove the other incentive from the Chinese government to force these people into camps.
Similarly, factories go where labor is the most vulnerable, as long as the political situation is stable enough for profit extraction to take place uninhibited by corruption or violence. We’ve tried to solve the problem of worker exploitation with legal protections, but business interests have overcome them, time and time again. Our history demonstrates that the solution to worker exploitation is developing a labor-oriented culture, which includes lawyers and judges who will defend the rights of workers against special interests, but more crucially, includes worker-citizens who meaningfully change the terms of trade with the capitalist class by organizing in unions, demanding higher-quality education, and responding appropriately to the excesses of capitalism we see today.
To resolve the situation in Xinjiang will be no easy feat- the West has never really solved the issue of exploitation of workers, instead exporting the most exploitative industries to the developing world. For the Uyghurs, at least, a path to freedom and independence exists in collective organization, but the larger issues of rectifying consumer culture, honoring labor rights more broadly, and the ethical progression of human legal systems remain enormous challenges for the global community in the 21st century.