A Chinese labor-transfer scheme that has relocated hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities from the far-west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to factories across the country was designed, at least in part, to “crack open the solidified [Uyghur] society,” thin its numbers and assimilate its members into mainstream Han culture, according to a high-level report for officials that was accidentally published online.
The so-called “Nankai report,” which researchers from the China Institute of Wealth and Economics at Nankai University uploaded online in mid-2020 before taking it down, adds to mounting evidence that beneath the Chinese government’s claims of “poverty alleviation through labor” lurks a broader campaign of persecution that human-rights groups have dubbed a “cultural genocide.”
Since 2016, Beijing has detained 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in a sprawling network of internment camps, which authorities euphemistically call “vocational education and training centers,” in and around Xinjiang, where experts say draconian measures such as forced sterilization, forced birth control and forced abortions serve as a means of population control. Former detainees of the camps have also described systematic physical harm, including starvation, sexual abuse, rape and torture.
The Chinese government has long denied accusations of forced labor or any human-rights violations against Uyghur Muslims, insisting that its measures offer Uyghurs a path out of poverty and away from radicalism. The Nankai report notes, however, that the internment camps serve as a “drastic short-term measure” to isolate what it calls “problematic” populations. Labor transfers, on the other hand, are a long-term measure that “not only reduces Uyghur population density in Xinjiang, but also is an important method to influence, fuse and assimilate Uyghur minorities.”
The Nankai report provides “strong and authoritative evidence for large-scale, coercive state-driven recruitments into labor transfers and for the securitized nature of such transfers to other provinces,” wrote Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist who obtained a copy of the document, in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
There are two main state-sponsored conduits of forced labor, Zenz said. The first places “graduates” from the detention camps into nearby factories. The other marshals “rural surplus” laborers from minority-heavy regions and assigns them mandatory training and job placements, including seasonal occupations such as picking cotton. These mass labor transfers embed Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang in factory jobs throughout China, Zenz said, expanding the “implications of China’s coercive labor practices for some of the world’s largest suppliers of garments and other manufactured goods.”
Indeed, Zenz’s analysis includes a legal opinion from Erin Farrell Rosenberg, former senior adviser to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who said that the Nankai report provides “credible grounds to conclude” that Xinjiang’s labor transfer program meets the criteria of crimes against humanity.
“Specifically, there is substantial evidence that the Chinese government is carrying out a widespread and systematic attack against the Uyghur civilian population pursuant to a government policy,” Rosenberg said. “Further, there are credible grounds to conclude that, as a part of the attack, the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer and persecution are occurring.”
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Monday that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. will make it a “top priority” to address the human-rights abuses of Beijing’s forced labor program that targets Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
“Americans and consumers around the world do not want products made with forced labor on store shelves, and workers should not be disadvantaged by competing with a state-sponsored regime of systematic repression,” it wrote in the 2021 Trade Policy Agenda and 2020 Annual Report. “The trade agenda will consider all options to combat forced labor and enhance corporate accountability in the global market.”
The Biden administration will also “coordinate with friends and allies to pressure the Chinese Government to end its unfair trade practices and to hold China accountable, including for the extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by its state-sanctioned forced labor program,” it added.
The United States, which imposed sweeping sanctions on cotton and cotton-containing products with origins in Xinjiang in January, is now the third country to recognize China’s actions as genocide. In February, the Dutch parliament and Canada’s House of Commons both passed non-binding resolutions saying that the treatment of Uyghurs in China is tantamount to genocide.
The Dutch motion said that actions by Beijing, including “measures intended to prevent births” and “having punishment camps” fall under United Nations Resolution 260, also known as the genocide convention. A formal legal opinion published by U.K. barristers last month also declared that there is not only a “very credible case that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide” but there is also a “plausible” case that personal responsibility for the genocide lies with President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials.
“The evidence reviewed…suggests the close involvement of Xi Jinping, Chen Quanguo and Zhu Hailun in initiating and implementing a range of measures which, taken together, target Uyghurs with a severity and to the extent that one could infer an intent to destroy the group as such,” the opinion read. “In those circumstances, we consider that there is a plausible inference that each of those three individuals possess[es] the necessary intent to destroy, so as to support a case against them of genocide.”
A recent analysis by risk-insight firm Verisk Maplesoft noted that companies with operations in Xinjiang are being confronted with “ever increasing” reputational, financial and operational hazards.
“As international condemnation of abuses in Xinjiang reaches a boiling point, it is looking increasingly likely that companies operating in Xinjiang face the prospect of a total exit from the region,” said human-rights analyst Sofia Nazalya. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Withhold Release Order, for instance, “effectively sounds a death knell” for imports of cotton and related downstream products to the United States, increasing pressure on companies to turn to alternative suppliers, she said.
“Uprooting suppliers and shifting operations will be a massive disruptor for businesses,” Nazalya added. “However, given that this is not the first U.S. measure against Xinjiang operations, most companies likely already have, or are in the process of creating contingency plans.”