Cover Photo: Ürümqi  Riots and Clashes, July 2009, available form Flickr

Uighur detainees are being forced to pick cotton in forced labour camps in Xinjiang province, according to multiple news sources. New evidence comes amid reports of abuse and ‘re-education’ in detention centres across the region.

US Assistant Secretary of Defence Randall Schriver suspects 1 to 3 million ethnic Chinese Uighurs and Kazakhs have entered detainment centres. The repression is part of an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to curtail ‘extremist’ tendencies in the population.

Former inmates have reported ‘brainwashing’ techniques, where detainees are forced to learn Mandarin and recite praise-worthy songs to Premier Xi Jinping, to indoctrinate them to Chinese culture. Messaging app WhatsApp has also reportedly been used to track and monitor Uighurs across the region; there have also been allegations of torture.

Attacks on the mainly Muslim Uighur religious practice are another way the Chinese government is attempting control the population and root-out ‘extremism’. Initiatives which have attempted to erode religious traditions began as early as 2011, and have included encouraging Uighur women to shun the hijab, and other forms of Muslim dress.

The latest developments find abuses on a wider scale, where prisoners are being forced into labour, which the CCP claims is an attempt to provide the Uighurs with better working skills.

Through multiple supply-chains, the cotton from Xinjiang eventually makes its way to clothing retailers, including some of the high-streets biggest names like Target, Ikea and H&M, reports ABC Four Corners. Other international brands including Nike, Adidas, and Calvin Klein are investigating or have suspended relationships with Chinese cotton suppliers.

Forced labour of this kind constitutes slavery according to the Anti-Slavery organisation, and is in violation of Article 4 of the Human Rights Act

These developments are taking place amid a shortages of cotton reserves in China. Cotton output was 6.10 million tons in 2018, compared with 7.60 million in 2008; while cotton imports from the US have increased year on year, according to a report published in March by Research and Markets. The growth of Chinese cotton spinning industries will continue to slow, while the domestic demand for cotton textiles will keep rising, increasing overall demand in China from 2019 to 2023. The worrying impetus then for the CCP would be to continue using cheaper, forced labour.

Recent US tariffs imposed against Chinese exports have negatively impacted the Chinese textiles industries. The US Commerce Department has also targeted 28 companies suspected of supporting the repression of minorities in Xinjiang, placing them on a blacklist that prohibits trading with US. The Commerce Department stated the targeted entities “have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups”.

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that Xinjiang produces more than 80 percent of Chinese cotton. It warns that the use of forced labour is becoming more commonplace, where it “increasingly forms an integral part of the government’s efforts to “re-educate” Muslim minorities and erase their culture and religion”. The report suggests there is a ‘significant probability’ that the detainment and mistreatment of Uighurs in the region constitutes crimes against humanity.


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