HONG KONG: Communism was supposed to create workers’ paradises, but history demonstrated that was a forlorn hope. China, the global factory, makes much of its outstanding economic growth, but economic coercion internationally, and forced labor abuses at home, are very much part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) equation.
For example, China has used trade as a weapon against the likes of Australia, Lithuania and South Korea for political purposes. Recognizing repeated Chinese intransigence, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last week, “We should be clear-eyed about the growing challenge we face. China is engaged in a concerted and strategic economic contest.”
The leaders of the G7 announced in Hiroshima on 20 May measures to respond to economic coercion in order to adopt a common approach against China and others of similar ilk. The G7 stated: “We are taking additional steps today to enhance our ongoing strategic coordination on economic resilience and economic security by reducing vulnerabilities and countering malign practices that exploit and reinforce them.” Certainly, coordinated action is far more effective than unilateral efforts, as China seeks to divide and conquer with its economic cudgel.
Noting that the world is encountering “a disturbing rise in incidents of economic coercion” which exploit economic vulnerabilities and undermine foreign and domestic policies worldwide, the G7 added: “We will address non-market policies and practices designed to reinforce dependencies, and will counter economic coercion. We will continue to ensure that the clearly defined, narrow set of sensitive technologies that are crucial for national security, or could threaten international peace and security, are appropriately controlled, without unduly impacting broader trade in technology.”
Referring to dual-use technologies, the grouping continued: “We have a common interest in preventing the narrow set of technological advances that are assessed to be core to enhancing the military and intelligence capabilities of actors who may use these capabilities to undermine international peace and security, from being fueled by our companies’ capital, expertise and knowledge.”
Knowing it was the target, China responded angrily to the G7’s new joint mechanism, accusing the group of manipulation and interference in its internal affairs. Recent episodes of wanton Chinese economic coercion include sanctioning Lockheed Martin and Raytheon for weapon sales to Taiwan; investigating American microchip maker Micron; raiding the Chinese offices of US due diligence firm Mintz; and detaining an executive of Japan’s Astellas Pharma group.
Another massive issue of coercion is forced labour in China. Although Beijing denies any forced labour exists within its borders, a new peer-reviewed study by the academic Adrian Zenz demonstrated that China is pursuing a state-sponsored campaign of forced labour for cotton production in Xinjiang.
Published by the Journal of Communist and Post-Communist Studies, via the University of California Press, the study noted that “state-sponsored forced labor is characterized by pervasive state-induced and systemic dynamics of coercion that are deeply embedded within sociocultural contexts … Xinjiang’s labour transfer program, which continued through 2022, pursues some economic aims but is predominantly designed to achieve Beijing’s wider ethnopolitical goals in the region.”
Such measures form part of Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plan for 2021-25. Manual labor is required since premium-grade cotton in southern Xinjiang cannot be harvested by machines.
Xinjiang produces more than 20% of the world’s cotton harvest, feeding the clothing and garment industry. Indeed, Xinjiang offers a complete value chain for cotton, from picking through to the production of yarn textiles and garments.
Zenz said labor coercion accelerated after 2016, alongside a pogrom of mass interment and highly oppressive policies against Uyghurs, as the CCP sought to assimilate and re-engineer this ethnic community.
Today, Uyghurs are forced at accept state-assigned work placements in cotton fields or related factories, separated from families and communities. Furthermore, they must endure intensive surveillance, long working hours and, in the evenings, mandatory political indoctrination and Chinese language classes.
Recognizing forced labor in Xinjiang, the US Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in late 2021, thereby banning all imports from Xinjiang on the presumption of forced labor, unless businesses can prove otherwise. American imports from Xinjiang are now down 90% since the law took effect in June 2022.
Although the EU will introduce similar legislation, Zenz fears that cotton tainted by forced labor will still enter global supply chains unless the laws specifically target Xinjiang. This is mostly because such laws address company-based forced labor, rather than state-sponsored labor, as exists in Xinjiang.
The CCP has moved on from its mass concentration camps, in which millions of Uyghurs were incarcerated. Beijing received heavy international criticism once the full extent of its activities was exposed. Although many are still imprisoned, China has intensified the transition to forced labor, as the government can still indoctrinate and control the Uyghur population in this way.
Zenz recorded: “From 2017, the region greatly increased the scope and coerciveness of transfers targeting especially Uyghurs for cotton picking.” The policy was intensified in 2019. “Xinjiang’s labour transfer program features its own mechanisms of coercion that operate in tandem with society-wide systems of surveillance and predictive policing.
Transfers are part of wider schemes to reduce concentrations of non-Han populations. Since 2018, the region also coercively places camp detainees into heavily surveilled factory work.” Before 2017, most of Xinjiang’s cotton pickers were Han migrant workers from other parts of China. It was at this time that the government ordered that preference be given to Uyghur workers. Between 2016 and 2020, Xinjiang transferred an annual average of 2.87 million workers.
Zenz obtained internal state documents from the Xinjiang Police Files website, which disclosed that state compulsion of Uyghurs into “poverty alleviation measures” intensified after mass interments peaked in 2018. Documents from 2019 sternly arned officials that efforts to employ Uyghurs fell short of targets. Officials were threatened with severe repercussions, and lists were compiled of “lazy” people with insufficient “inner motivation”.
These lists could include people as old as 77 years. Internal directives said such people must be subjected to “repeated…thought education” until it produced “obvious results”. As well as able-bodied people, students and those older than 60 were forced to pick cotton, vegetables, tomatoes and peppers. Local governments organized centralized childcare so mothers could also participate in seasonal agriculture labor.
Such top-down directives from the CCP are not treated lightly. As with China’s Draconian COVID-19 regulations, local officials passionately outdo each other to enact CCP orders. Not only are such directives met, but often they are exceeded thanks to heavy-handed enforcement.
Zenz pointed out: “In reality, most forced labor in the region is unrelated to the camps. The bigger factor is coercive labor transfers, which are implemented as part of Xi’s campaign to eradicate absolute poverty. These affect almost all forms of low-skill work, regardless of sector.”
Xinjiang’s 2021-25 Five-Year Plan mandates that all persons able to work must have a job. Any Uyghurs who fail to comply with work placements are branded “extremists”, and thus subject to open-ended imprisonment in a reeducation camp.
Any resistance to state policies is deemed a threat to national security. Actually, Chinese officials admit the goal of “full employment” in Xinjiang is not just about economic development, but that it constitutes a political mandate seen as critical to China’s national security.
Chairman Xi Jinping personally stated that widespread unemployment would “provoke trouble”; thus, forcibly employing them keeps potential “troublemakers” gainfully occupied.
Also part of the process is converting small plots of Uyghur-owned land into large-scale plantations. Uyghur families are forced to surrender their land usage rights in favor of large-scale collective entities.
To add insult to injury, these farmers were then forced to perform manual work in nearby factories or sweatshops. It is not just cotton and farming that are subject to forced labor.
As China pushes both vocational training and forced employment in Xinjiang, the possibility grows that more highly skilled industries will also embrace forced labour.
In 2021, Xinjiang dispatched 400,000 cadres to investigate 12 million rural households. They identified 774,000 households for real-time monitoring and, more than coincidentally, the number of transferred workers reached a record high that year.
These “recruitment drives are characterized by tightly organized transfers and close supervision”. China promises material benefits from employment, including anti-exploitation regulations, improved work conditions, higher safety standards and social benefits.
While this sounds positive, such nominal measures actually underscore the whole coercive nature of the scheme. Throughout their employment, cadres closely monitor workers and even assess their “state of mind”. Zenz said: “Xinjiang’s system at least nominally aims to increase incomes so that the state can declare ethnic regions to be free from poverty. Given China’s low absolute poverty threshold, even meager remuneration for picking cotton suffices to push ethnic pickers above that line. However, the state’s long-term goal is to shift people from traditional livelihoods and communities to ‘modern’ state-controlled settings of work, indoctrination and social control”.
China ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions banning the use of forced labor in August 2022. Beijing did so because it feels confident in disguising its forced-labour programs, plus signing it makes the country look law-abiding.
Zenz conceded: “To understand and evaluate the dynamic, whole-of-society nature of state-led coercive work placements, international inspectors would have to conduct extensive fieldwork in relevant rural settings – something impossible in Xinjiang.”
Thus, even on-scene investigations in Xinjiang will not necessarily raise red flags. The German academic wrote: “The resulting environments of ‘structurally forced consent’ are not necessarily immediately observable to outsiders, and may be challenging to assess through conventional means such as the ILO’s forced labor indicator framework, which was not designed to evaluate state-sponsored forced labour.”
Nor, in a highly repressive environment such as Xinjiang, can talking to individual workers get to the truth. The greatest levels of coercion occur at the initial recruitment stage, and where the prevailing social context precludes free movement.
The CCP thus feels confident it can obfuscate the existence of such labor programs. It can circumvent ILO indicators on the ground (of which there are eleven, including abuse of vulnerability, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation, abusive work conditions, violence, debt bondage and withholding wages) because it is difficult to identify forced labor on the ground.
Thus, efforts to expose China’s duplicity must look beyond mere economic exploitation, and also examine ethnic, religious, cultural and national security aspects. Chinese clothing companies using Xinjiang cotton are already obfuscating supply chains to evade Western sanctions.
Furthermore, Beijing has obstreperously implemented its own counter-sanction law penalizing Chinese businesses if they comply with Western sanctions. Xinjiang is one of the tightest security states in the world, and ethnic profiling against Uyghurs is rampant.
The authorities even “preempt” acts of deviance through mass surveillance and predictive policing. Internment is a go-to solution for any hint of trouble, which may include past actions, social interactions and behavior patterns.
Zenz further noted: “Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang focus on ethnic profiling and are framed as an urgent matter of national security for the state, which has portrayed Uyghurs as a type of ‘biological threat’. Compared to traditional rural livelihoods, surveilled factory environments in China provide the state with greater control over workers, weaken traditional community structures and curtail the intergenerational transmission of indigenous culture.”
Zenz warned that China’s forced-labor program may continue for “a long time to come”, owing to its economic might, the CCP’s long-term political aims in Xinjiang, and Xi’s perceived implications for national security.
As the G7 explained: “Our policy approaches are not designed to harm China, nor do we seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development. A growing China that plays by international rules would be of global interest.
We are not decoupling or turning inwards. At the same time, we recognize that economic resilience requires de-risking and diversifying.” If only China would desist from its coercive behaviors at home and abroad. But there is negligible chance of this happening as long as Xi determinedly holds the reins of power.