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Experts: China's 'Coercive' Labor Policy Pushing Uighurs Out of Traditional Livelihoods

FILE - In this file image from undated video footage run by China's CCTV via AP Video, Muslim trainees work in a garment factory at the Hotan Vocational Education and Training Center in Hotan, Xinjiang, northwest China.
FILE - In this file image from undated video footage run by China's CCTV via AP Video, Muslim trainees work in a garment factory at the Hotan Vocational Education and Training Center in Hotan, Xinjiang, northwest China.

While more details are emerging about the alleged coercive labor of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang region, some China observers say Beijing's efforts are strategically calculated to change the traditional livelihood of rural residents by pushing them off the land into state-controlled wage-earner jobs.

China last Thursday published Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang, detailing its "poverty alleviation efforts" that human rights groups have branded as forced labor.

The white paper said that every year, from 2014 to 2019, government-run "vocational training" projects provided training sessions to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers, of which 451,400 were in southern Xinjiang where more than 80% of the local population are Uighurs. It claimed that of the 103,300 farmers and herders from southern Xinjiang's Hotan prefecture, 98,300 of them found work thanks to the training program.

To increase the level of employment in the long run, the paper proposed to "change people's outdated mindset" in the region. It further said that local authorities in Xinjiang have turned to a policy of encouraging "surplus rural labor" to work in or near their hometowns.

According to Adrian Zenz, a senior research fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the publication last week was the first official admission by China that its abuses of Muslim minorities included forced labor. The policy, he said, aims to convert Uighur pastoralists and farmers to wage laborers.

"It puts them into closed labor environments where the state has far more control over them and often removes them from their families, promoting intergenerational separation and more state control over the next generation (which grows up in boarding schools)," Zenz told VOA.

A similar policy has been implemented in Tibet, where thousands of residents dubbed "surplus laborers" were uprooted from their rural lands into state-run training centers.

"In the first seven months of 2020, the region had trained over half a million rural surplus laborers through this policy. This scheme encompasses Tibetans of all ages and covers the entire region," he said.

Unlike Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnics who mostly have nomadic lifestyles in Xinjiang, Uighurs are primarily identified with their settled peasantry and traditional handcraftsmanship.

According to the 2000 Chinese government census, 80.56% of the Uighurs are considered rural population working as farmers and herders. The remaining 19.44% of them are urban dwellers with more diverse occupations ranging from traditional handcrafters and small-business vendors to restaurant owners and government employees.

China since 2016 has faced international condemnation for cracking down on minorities in Xinjiang, and the detention of 1 million to 1.8 million of them under harsh conditions. Rights organizations say the indigenous people are also exposed to coercive birth prevention, political indoctrination, enforced disappearances, comprehensive surveillance and destruction of their cultural sites.

The Chinese government, however, is rejecting the accusations, saying it is running a "transformation-through-education centers" campaign in Xinjiang. Chinese officials have called the camps "vocational training" facilities for people who were exposed to "ideas of extremism and terrorism." In other occasions, the officials have said the camps teach the people skills needed to undertake new jobs.

US action

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 406-3 in favor of the "Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act," a bill that bars all goods from Xinjiang because of coerced labor concerns. If enacted into law, the bill will put greater responsibility on companies to prove that their products have not been made with forced labor in a region that produces nearly 85% of China's cotton.

If passed into law, the bill puts more responsibility on companies to prove their products aren't made with forced labor

The bill followed last Monday's U.S. government announcement of banning goods from China that could be the product of forced labor, including hair products, computer parts and cotton.

Department of Homeland Security acting Deputy Secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli says the administration was conducting more legal analysis of the region-wide import bans

"By taking this action, DHS is combating illegal and inhumane forced labor, a type of modern slavery, used to make goods that the Chinese government then tries to import into the United States. When China attempts to import these goods into our supply chains, it also disadvantages American workers and businesses," said acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli.

China has strongly blasted the U.S. House bill, calling the accusation of forced labor a lie.

"Xinjiang affairs are purely China's internal affairs. The U.S. is in no position and has no right to interfere. The issue of 'forced labor' is a lie made by some institutions and people of the U.S. and some Western countries," China's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Wednesday.

Wang said the bill is seeking to hamper the progress his government has made in the region while encouraging ethnic division.

Demographic change

Ethnic conflict between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang has been rising in recent years as Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of using economic development programs in Xinjiang to encourage a huge influx of majority Han migrants to the region. The proportion of Han in the region has reportedly risen from nearly 9% in 1945 to about 40% today, triggering among Uighurs the fear of a demographic change in their areas.

According to James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University, many Uighurs were engaged in entrepreneurship in the past, including running small businesses in cities across Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. However, these options have been more difficult for them in recent years because of increased police persecution, discrimination in eastern Chinese cities, and being forced out of Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.

"The recent white paper is celebrating the fact that 70 years after taking over control of the region, the CCP now is attempting to train and employ poor people through internment and coercive means, having failed for decades to address discrimination against Uighurs by the Xinjiang Production Construction Corps (86% Han, 90% funded by Beijing) or provide free education to some of its poorest citizens," Millward told VOA.

Xinjiang Production Construction Corps (XPCC), or Bingtuan in Chinese, was founded in 1954 by the Chinese Liberation Army after the CCP took over Xinjiang in 1949. XPCC is a hybrid organization of military structure and business enterprise with independent administrative authority over a dozen cities, divisions and regimental farms in Xinjiang.

The U.S. government this July announced sanctions on XPCC for its direct involvement in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Washington also designated Chen Quanguo, the current first party secretary of the XPCC, along with two other former and current top commanders of the XPCC, for their connection to human rights abuse in the region.