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China Goes on the Defensive as US Scrutinizes Xinjiang Supply Chains

China lashed out in defense of its “reeducation camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region just as a House subcommittee hearing pondered an act that would ban virtually all goods from the northwestern territory and days after U.S. Customs and Border Protection slapped Withhold Release Orders on products reportedly made using state-sponsored forced Uyghur and other Muslim-minority labor.

“Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang,” a white paper published by China’s State Council Information Office Thursday, claims that the region’s “vigorously implemented employment projects, enhanced vocational training and expanded employment channels and capacity” have increased jobs, elevated incomes and improved the wellbeing of an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers every year from 2014 to 2019.

Some 451,400 of these workers hailed from southern Xinjiang—namely the prefectures of Hotan, Kashgar, Aksu and Kizilsu Kirgiz—which Chinese authorities singled out as an area of extreme poverty plagued by “terrorists, separatists and religious extremists” who goad the public to “resist learning the standard spoken and written Chinese language, reject modern science and refuse to improve their vocational skills, economic conditions and the ability to better their own lives.”

From 2014 to 2019, the paper noted, the number of people employed in Xinjiang rose 17.2 percent from 11.35 million to 13.3 million. Urban employment increased by an average of 471,200 people. Of these, 31.4 percent, or 148,000 people, were in southern Xinjiang. During the same period, per-capita disposable incomes increased 8.6 percent for urban residents and 8.9 percent for rural ones. From 2018 to 2019, 155,000 people from registered poor households in southern Xinjiang and in four impoverished regimental farms of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization that plays a leading role in the development of the Xinjiang region, found employment outside their hometowns and “subsequently emerged from poverty.”

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“Through its proactive labor and employment policies, Xinjiang has continuously improved the people’s material and cultural lives, and guaranteed and developed their human rights in every field,” the paper’s authors wrote.

While the report does not easily reveal the numbers of people forced into internment camps, where they may be subject to modern slavery, torture, forced sterilization, sexual violence and indoctrination, they provide a “possible scope of coercive labor through the centralized, militarized training of rural surplus laborers,” wrote Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who studies forced labor in Xinjiang, on Thursday, referring to a policy that relocates 10 percent of the region’s population to “emancipate the mind and eliminate old habits,” as one state-run media outlet put it, ever year.

Highlighting the 155,000 people who found jobs outside their hometowns, Zenz said that the figure would contain a “significant share of persons released from vocational internment camps.” The high numbers, which are persisting throughout 2020, reveal an “ongoing rural labor transfer” and “ongoing training and successive release of persons from vocational internment camps,” he added. More than 2.76 million “surplus rural laborers,” on average, are relocated annually, according to the paper. Some 60 percent, or 1.68 million, are from southern Xinjiang.

“Rural south [Xinjiang] poor households are [a] core target of the internment campaign,” he continued. “Many of them at least initially are placed into jobs near the internment camps, often within the same industrial parks. Some can then return home. But while this figure relates to the camps, it does NOT tell us how many are or were in the camps!”

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., noted on Twitter that the Chinese government has released seven white papers since 2015 to “whitewash rights abuses against Uyghurs.”

“Credible research has consistently demonstrated that ‘poverty alleviation’ is merely a euphemism for the repression and coercion of the Uyghur population and other Turkic Muslim peoples in China,” Penelope Kyritsis, assistant research director at the Worker Rights Consortium, told Sourcing Journal Friday. “The Chinese government’s new white paper further cements this grim reality, and gives us additional insight into the pervasive and extensive nature of the forced labor crisis in the Uyghur region. It is imperative that major apparel brands and retailers end their complicity in these abuses by signing the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region’s call to action.”

Labor-rights groups estimate that as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are detained in one of a thousand internment camps and prisons designed to repress and remold them into model Chinese citizens. Though mounting criticism and outrage have prompted brands like H&M and Patagonia to sever ties with companies that may have links to operations in Xinjiang—and plenty more to deny they have connections there—“virtually” the entire apparel industry is tainted with forced Uyghur labor, activists say, since roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains fiber or yarn sourced from the embattled region.

On Wednesday, Britain’s parliament opened a new enquiry into Xinjiang’s detention camps with the goal of examining how the government can prevent U.K. companies from profiting from forced labor in the region.

“The mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has horrifying echoes of the 1930s,” Minister of Parliament Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, said in a statement. “There have been similar atrocities since, and each time the world has promised to never allow such violations to happen again. And yet, we now have clear, undeniable evidence of the persecution of more than one million people in these so-called re-education camps.”

The investigation will focus on “key questions about what the U.K. can do to exert its influence and the steps the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will take to fulfill its goal of making our country an ‘active, internationalist, problem-solving and burden-sharing nation,’” he added. “We will also examine what mechanisms the government can use to discourage private sector companies from contributing to human-rights abuses and hope to hear from those directly affected by the atrocities, using this inquiry to support members of the Uyghur diaspora community.”