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Forced labour and the systematic oppression of Uighurs

There needs to be a broad alliance of countries and non-state actors to put pressure on global supply chains to stop sourcing from Xinjiang and other parts of China where forced labour is involved.

Jason Loh Seong Wei
5 minute read

The systematic oppression and repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province – which is in defiance of the constitution, laws and policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself – has become more alarming and gotten worse. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated that the Uighurs are now “treated as enemies of the state based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity”. It’s as if – and this is said not as a matter of fact but only rhetorical – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is hell-bent on eradicating the Uighur people from the face of the earth. No wonder Western democracies, especially, view the situation in Xinjiang as nothing short of a form of “genocide”.

In addition to well-documented and confirmed cases of extra-judicial disappearances and torture, forced separation and the compulsory sterilisation of Uighur women, one of the developments that have emerged more fully is the highly organised and extensive use of forced labour.

Axios China which provides up-to-date news and reports on developments in the PRC has reported that forced labour of the Uighurs is much bigger than previously thought. Inside the so-called re-education and vocational centres which are actually extra-judicial mass internment or concentration camps, factories have been built on a rapid scale to accommodate the production of cotton, among others. Cotton plantation and production are highly integrated into global supply chains and represent highly lucrative earnings for the CCP government.

As reported in The Guardian (July 23, 2020), many of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers are complicit in the forced labour of the Uighurs. In a press release by 180 rights groups (both Uighur and non-Uighur), it’s roughly estimated that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn from Xinjiang where it’s virtually certain that forced labour has been employed.

So, instead of just being sent to the concentration camps for some kind of re-education as a euphemism for forced indoctrination and brainwashing on a massive scale – to remould the Uighurs in the image of the CCP, in effect social re-engineering via indirect forced assimilation so that they’re completely secularised (according to the CCP ideology in the belief that this will entrench loyalty to the party) – they’re being exploited as cheap or even slave labour to increase China’s corporate profits at a time when labour costs are rising.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi), forced labour doesn’t only take place within Xinjiang, i.e. inside the confines of the “re-education and vocational centres”, but also in various parts of the country and beyond just the cotton industry. To quote the Aspi: “Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uighurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, (footwear), and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen”. All in all, Aspi has identified 83 foreign and local Chinese companies as “allegedly directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programmes”.

Apart from systematic persecution and corporate interests, is the CCP using the Uighurs as expendable “cannon fodders” as part of some stealth campaign to undermine global capitalism? Why “infiltrate” global capitalism with forced labour in the full knowledge that it’s completely unacceptable by global standards and laws – especially in view of the fact that Western democracies have enacted modern anti-slavery laws in recent years such as the UK (Modern Slavery Act, 2015) and Australia (Modern Slavery Act, 2018). And the US has recently passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (2020). In terms of state legislation, California, for example, passed its Transparency in Supply Chains Act in 2010.

Not least, it’s galling that a party and country founded on upholding the rights and interests of the “proletariat” isn’t a signatory to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29) and Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention.

Or is it really foolhardiness by rogue elements within the CCP who are confident enough of China’s place in the world now – to be able to create a “parallel” geo-economic system and global supply chain that can finally de-couple from the existing one that’s seen to be under US dominance, not least to the role played by the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency?

Does it ominously portend and a harbinger of a future world under the hegemonic rule of the CCP where there’s a hierarchy of people according to ethnicity, region, and other types of ideological classifications?

The use of the Uighurs as forced labour is indeed reminiscence of Nazi Germany’s exploitation of “non-Aryans” such as Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war from the Soviet Union, Czechs, Poles, etc to work in armament factories during the Second World War.

And as the power struggle intensifies to push out Xi Jinping, can we expect to see the persecution and oppression of the Uighurs to become even worse and more horrific? It seems there’s now a behind-the-scenes campaign to purge Xi himself of his paramount leadership role, especially in the wake of his mishandling of the Covid-19 epidemic that ravaged the country for a while. The tide may be finally turning against Xi albeit not yet reaching the point where his detractors have the upper hand. Though details are sketchy, it can be confirmed that there are factions within the CCP who are increasingly unhappy with Xi’s hardline approach to domestic and foreign affairs. As former CCP insider Cai Xia who was expelled from the party for her criticism of Xi said: “There is a very strong challenge to Xi within the CCP, he knows that and if the US continues to give pressure on the Chinese economy, the CCP central committee might consider to replace him”.

Finally, it cannot be strongly enough emphasised and reiterated that forced labour in the context of Xinjing province involves the Uighurs as an ethno-religious minority. To quote from the report entitled “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): “While forced labour is always abhorrent, the use of compelled labour as part of a concerted effort to eliminate a culture and religion sets the situation in Xinjiang apart.” That is, even if genocide doesn’t take place by way of war and armed conflict, the Uighurs are seeing the slow death and ultimate destruction of their identity and cultural heritage under the pretext of the fight against Islamic terrorism, separatism/secessionism and extremism.

One of the key steps to fighting back against the ongoing systematic oppression and repression of the Uighurs is to end this practice of forced labour. The US has shown the way by its Department of Homeland Security’s US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Trade issuing a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on Dec 2, 2020, directing personnel at all US ports of entry to detain all shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Beyond that, there needs to be a broad and grand alliance and coalition of countries, i.e. state actors and NGOs as non-state actors to put pressure on the global supply chains to stop sourcing from Xinjiang province and other parts of China where forced labour is involved.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is head of social, law and human rights at independent think tank Emir Research.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.