In recent years, the Uighurs, the majority of whom populate the Xinjiang region in the country’s north-west, have been consistently corralled into internment camps and re-education centres by state authorities on account of their religious ‘extremism’ and cultural dissonance.
Rather than this being the end-point of their supposed assimilation, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have concluded that those detained are often transferred to work in textile and manufacturing plants both within, and outside, Xinjiang. A new report issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on Sunday 1 March has revealed that Uighur Muslims are now the subjects of an extensive system of forced labour within China. It suggests that over 80,000 Uighurs have been transported to various factories nationwide between 2017 and 2019. Many of these sites are key constituents in a multinational global supply chain, involved in the operations of Apple, Mercedes-Benz and Nike.
Vicky Xu, one of the contributors to the report, writes that the state’s ‘goal is to sinicize the Uighurs’ through this labour programme dubbed (rather ironically) as “Xinjiang Aid.” Whilst Chinese officials state that many Uighurs have ‘graduated’ from their ‘re-education’ programs, there is no disjuncture in their experience of continued oppression. They remain under unremitting surveillance, stripped of their freedom and denied any acknowledgement of their heritage. Political indoctrination remains a fundamental part of their new occupational assignments.
For example, in May 2018, 105 Uighur workers were transferred to Hubei Yihong Precision Manufacturing Co. Ltd in Hubei province. On arrival, a senior party official demanded that the workers ‘quickly blend in.’ Despite Adrian Zenz’s assessment that the government has established a ‘grand scheme of forced labour,’ the reality is far more unsettling. Muslim workers, including other Turkic minorities such as the Hui, are segregated from the Han workforce. They are pressured into involuntary Mandarin lessons and often complete over 100 hours of overtime a month. It is not an economic initiative, but an utilitarian remoulding of a culture through coercion and confinement that is being realised.
This nexus of coerced labour is an expedient development that elides both the socio-political and economic projects pursued by China’s leadership. Xinjiang represents not only the largest cultural obstacle in President Xi Jinping’s drive for cultural uniformity, but also the commercial fulcrum around which his ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) operates. China’s Ministry of Commerce reported that trade in goods along the BRI totalled $1.3 trillion in 2018, with a significant proportion of its working infrastructure concentrated within the region.
The government has manipulated the local environment into a thoroughfare for Chinese trade and industry, using sustained investment and the allure of tempting subsidies. Large manufacturers have established satellite sites of production that can further stymie the freedom of the indentured Uighur labourers. Furthermore, there is a sustained assault on the distinct semiotics of regional Chinese Islam. The demolition of minarets and the restructuring of mosques’ appearances represent the attempted reconfiguration of Xinjiang’s landscape. Any aberrant form to Han orthodoxy is prohibited.
‘The great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is actually a narrow-minded, xenophobic kind of nationalism,’ argues Li Yunfei, an imam from eastern China and member of the repressed Hui minority who share their Turkic ancestry with the Uighurs. It is this myopic mythos of a singular Chinese culture, sponsored at all levels within the state’s machinery and propagated by continued consumption of the West’s most noticeable brands: Adidas, Fila, Dell and many more have been associated with these forced labour factories.
While many of the domestic and foreign companies linked to this exploitative industry claim total ignorance, it is the brazen denial of Chinese officials that renders any internally-motivated change hopeless. Wang Yang, a prominent Politburo member and director of the Xinjiang labour policies, has claimed their effectiveness in encouraging ethnic minorities to ‘interact and develop themselves.’ With this in mind, the ASPI’s recommendations to pressure the Chinese government into ratifying the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions on forced labour, and to uphold the myriad civic rights enshrined within its constitution, seem wholly ineffectual.
A more pragmatic course of action is the immediate stalling of all foreign investment into China’s manufacturing sector. This will cut off the financial propellant that displaces thousands of Uighur workers each year, allowing corporations to conduct the necessary due diligence investigations into its plants’ working conditions. Targeted sanctions can undermine the economic viability of such gross eschewing of human rights. Both a concerted international response and pressure from NGOs regarding the transparency of factory operations is needed.