When ‘poverty alleviation’ means forced labor for Uyghurs

Politics & Current Affairs

Outside of the well-documented internment camp system, the Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer program is normalizing forced labor for Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in China, according to a new report.

Illustration for The China Project by Selina Lee

The use of Uyghur forced labor in China’s so-called “reeducation camps” has been documented by journalists, scholars, and nonprofit organizations, based on eye-witness accounts, leaked official documents, and on-the ground reporting. There is some evidence to suggest that China is phasing out internment camps for Turkic, mainly Muslim minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang. But according to a new report, a more insidious and creeping atrocity is taking place.

In a paper titled “The conceptual evolution of poverty alleviation through labor transfer in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” published yesterday, Adrian Zenz argues that China is pursuing a policy of mass coerced labor under a separate system from the internment camps. His report also provides the first witness testimonies that Uyghurs who refused these state work assignments were sent to camps.

Such coercion is illegal under the International Labor Organisation (ILO), of which China is a member.

Zenz is an anthropologist who, since 2018, has been doggedly documenting human rights abuses against Uyghurs using Chinese government documents, leaked police files, and eye witness accounts. He is a director and senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1993.

His new paper examines Xinjiang’s implementation of China’s National Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer program, under which “surplus rural laborers” are trapped in state-choreographed labor transfers under the banner of poverty alleviation and de-extremification.

This is a different policy from the mass internment regime that began in 2017 under then Party Secretary of Xinjiang Chén Quánguó 陈全国, under which hundreds of thousands and possibly more than than 1 million Uyghurs were detained in euphemistically named Vocational Skills Education and Training Centres (VSETCs). Many of them have been transferred to factories in Xinjiang and around China, where they are forced to work.

However, there are millions more who have never been in a camp, but have been swept up in the Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer program. Documented examples include official government orders to withhold “subsistence allowances for individuals who repeatedly refuse to participate in poverty alleviation projects,” to coerce “elderly persons to participate in seasonal labor transfers, including picking cotton,” and a state plan in one area to “round up ‘all women and other surplus laborers’ — 500 persons from only 391 households — to work in neighboring cities.”

According to Zenz’s research, village leaders, some with Chinese state-ordered quotas to fill and others at the behest of multinationals searching for sweatshop labor for Western brands, go door to door to round them up, luring them with get-rich-quick stories and a way out of poverty.

The fine print, which they are never privy to, is that the placements often include tight surveillance, political indoctrination, compulsory Mandarin classes after a day on the shop floor, and the impossibility of returning home before the contract ends. To refuse this chance to “better themselves” also risks being singled out for detention as a troublemaker.

Two types of forced labor

In his report, Zenz outlines the critical differences between the two major strands of forced labor and presents key new evidence testimony of punishments awaiting rural Uyghurs who refuse to participate in government work programs.

With the closure of many VSETCs, the Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer policy is assuming more importance in Beijing’s long term plan, which is to strengthen and institutionalize its policy of compulsory labor among the entire rural Uyghur population of Xinjiang, according to Zenz.

Zenz told The China Project, that not only was the state-mandated labor transfer system “active,” but that in fact, it was expanding. “It’s increasing, it’s intensifying, it’s becoming normalized, institutionalized, and maybe less visibly coercive as a result,” he said.

“If policy makers in international institutions misunderstand and think that forced labor is only linked to the camps, then the implications are that we are likely to have a policy that doesn’t effectively address what’s going on,” he warned.

The government rationale is that while the VSETCs administer intensive de-extremification to “cure” persons already “infected” with the “virus” of “religious extremism,” labor transfers are to preventively inoculate those who are not yet “infected,” according to Zenz’ report.

There is a common end game however which is to bring the entire rural Uyghur workforce to heel, by whatever means, by imposing Beijing’s definition of social stability amid a regional atmosphere not unlike an “open prison”.

While, according to Zenz, there is evidence to suggest the camps are being wound down and the “camp-to-labor pipeline” is no longer pursued by the state, the other track to forced labor is alive and well.

Chloe Cranston, Head of Thematic Advocacy Programs at Anti-Slavery International welcomed Zenz’s report as a counter to the corporate sector pursuing “business as normal” in the region amid claims the situation has improved.

“We have continuously underlined to companies and policymakers the complexity of the forced labor system, and that it extends beyond camp-linked labor,” she told The China Project.

“Businesses and investors must make sure they have no links to the region and governments should use all legislative measures within their control — such as import controls and sanctions, to put pressure on the Chinese government to end the persecution,” she told The China Project.

Rushan Abbas, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based non profit, Campaign for Uyghurs, told The China Project it was important to recognise different forms of state sponsored forced labor. “This is important to ensure we are not deceived by the Chinese government’s evolving tactics to disguise its human rights abuses, including Uyghur forced labor,” she said. “The gradual release of camp detainees for eventual placement for forced labor underscores the fact that forced labor can and does persist even after camp closures.”

The histories of “reeducation” and “poverty alleviation”

The VSETC system itself evolved from the Re-Education Through Labor system that began under former leader Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. In the 21st century, “Vocational Training Schools,” were authorized by current leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, and implemented by Chen Quanguo, who took over as Party Secretary of Xinjiang in 2016, after quelling dissent in Tibet.

According to Zenz, Chen’s purpose was to “create a camp-to-labor pipeline that starts with re-education without labor followed by a gradual release process of short term camp-based skills training, job training in nearby factories alongside evening re-education, and then coerced work placements in factory parks or further afield.” Large numbers of eastern Chinese enterprises were spurred on by this to invest and build factories in Xinjiang. Ex-camp detainees were usually placed in securitised areas of factories, and forced to work in locked cubicles and sleep in locked dormitories.

The “poverty alleviation” track to coerced labor also has a long history. Uyghurs were setting off to inner China as far back as the 1990’s to look for work and a better life. Private companies, often incentivised by the state, also recruited village Uyghurs for inner China jobs. Initially workers were free to come and go and leave the jobs if they wanted.

Ainisa, a Uyghur exile in London speaking to The China Project, said her village friends often told her in the late 1990’s of groups of girls who were recruited for a couple of years to work in factories in the East. “Parents were reluctant to let them go,” she said, “but they needed the money and they all went together, so it seemed safe.”

But the party-state was worried by the trickle of independent individuals setting off “unsupervised ” to seek their fortune, and by 2003, the government had set its own goals to transfer and supervise the placements of 150,000 laborers annually.

Concerned still by a lack of “macro-level steering,” the 11th Five Year Plan for 2006–10 ordered subsidies, information networks and the services of employment companies to “strengthen the organization of the workforce,” and to promote its own transfers of what became known as “surplus” rural laborers.

Compulsion increasingly became a hallmark of the policies. Zenz cited an article in a 2007 Chinese Journal of Population Science quoting a township leader in Kashgar’s Konasheher county as saying: “Nowadays, more farmers in the suburbs of cities and towns go voluntarily, but in remote rural areas there is indeed a phenomenon of compulsion…Working in the countryside…it is impossible to [do this] without any force.”

Poverty alleviation in the early days was the major driver but increasingly social stability, the elimination of “troublesome elements,” the dilution of communities and a host of political objectives became the prime objectives.

Uyghur farmers were forced to sell their land usage rights to free them up for factory work. Young women were coaxed to work in eastern China textile factories to “prevent early marriages” and “promote social modernisation.”

In 2007, according to Zenz’s report, 210 female middle school graduates from Kashgar’s Payzawat county were forcibly locked into a vocational training school to learn Chinese to prepare them for work in eastern China. The girls were then taken to a Tianjin textile factory, 2,562 miles away on the opposite side of China, confined to dormitories, surveilled by cameras and forced to work “excruciatingly long hours.” They could only quit after completing a one year contract.

By 2014 central government priorities for Xinjiang shifted from economic development to “de-extremification” (去极端化) and stability maintenance (维稳). Then-Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 was worried by Xinjiang’s three million “surplus laborers” who posed a “particularly prominent problem,” arguing that “people without land, employment, or a fixed income have nothing to do and wander all day” and will “be easily exploited by evildoers.”

Arbeit macht Einheit?

Xi Jinping saw employment as “conducive to ethnic interaction, exchanges and blending” leading ethnic groups to “imperceptibly study Chinese culture”.

By 2017 Chinese companies in the region had adopted this framing. Aksu Huafu Textiles Co., which operates the world’s largest textile mill in Xinjiang, stated on its website: “Due to lack of information, lack of courage, and fear of going out, large numbers of rural surplus laborers are idle at home, which increases the burden on their families and brings hidden dangers to public security. Aqsu Huafu actively engaged with government departments, actively absorbed surplus labor…to gradually transform them from farmers to industrial workers,” it said.

By the 13th Five-Year Plan, 2016–2020, Beijing was pressing for a “systematic expansion” of Uyghur relocation to other parts of China to “receive education, employment and residence.” This included the establishment of 25 industrial parks intended to create 150,000 jobs. In this period, a target of 2.2 million labor transfers was exceeded by 30% — with some individual Uyghurs being transferred more than once.

Recruitment teams were going door to door, forbidden to leave until their targets had been achieved. Coercion was increasingly common and abuses were reported. Older people and ethnic minority women were to be “accelerated” through satellite factories, because the “inner motivation” of locals was “insufficient and must be ‘stimulated’, and “people’s outdated mindset of “waiting, relying, wanting” must be ‘eradicated”.

“Curing poverty means to first cure ignorance and backwardness,” were the government orders, resulting in “drastic curtailment of voluntary migration and self-chosen work,” according to Zenz.

“Thought work”, making people aware of their “deficiencies”, calling out “laziness” and public shaming sessions became de rigeur. “Let lazy persons speak [in front of all], let them blush and sweat, stimulate the inner motivation of the whole village, especially the inner motivation of poor households.”

Between July and October 2017, many street cleaners from southern Xinjiang appeared in the northern city of Kuytun according to Anar Sabit, a Kazakh camp survivor whose testimony featured in The New Yorker. These were “transferred workers,” according to her government-employed relative, who had told her they worked during the day and were “locked” in dormitories at night.

In September 2018 a village in Altay prefecture, in the north of Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, reported a labor transfer rate of “over 95%,” boasting that it had “realized a village without idlers.”

In 2018, 221,000 laborers were transferred from 22 poor counties in southern Xinjiang to other regions with the explicit mandate to, “train all who should be trained” (应培尽培), emphasizing intensive political indoctrination, “gratitude to the party,” Chinese language skills, work discipline, and military drilling.

Centralized state-led transfers involved accompanying officials and police guards, writes Zenz.

Since Chen’s replacement in 2021 by Mă Xīngruì 马兴瑞 a technocrat from Guangdong experienced in economic development, “Xinjiang has been shifting from Chen Quanguo’s highly mobilizational, campaign-style labor transfers to a more normalized and institutionalized strategy that emphasizes maintaining labor placement achievements through intensified monitoring,” said Zenz in his report

A source of cheap labor

By 2022 labor transfer “person times” (as opposed to “people” since each person can be transferred multiple times) reached three million, and stable employment rates of 99.88% in one area at least observed by Zenz were maintained through “close monitoring.”

“Clearly,” says Zenz, “transferred Uyghurs constitute cheap and easily exploited labor amid soaring nationwide labor costs.”

But China’s forced labor policies directly contravene ILO rules that define forced labor as work that is involuntary, without free and informed consent, and enforced through a menace of penalty. Those who choose not to comply are at highest risk of punishment while those who opt in, also do so “in the context of multiple un-freedoms,” “and are unable to freely leave their work,” said Zenz.

Among the leaked cache of Xinjiang Police File documents, Zenz discovered a classified internal directive detailing the fate of those refusing to comply with poverty alleviation measures and labor transfers, who were liable to face “strike hard” detention. “Non-participation in state employment programmes also directly increased a person’s internment risk,” he found.

Abbas of the Campaign for Uyghurs confirmed Zenz’ findings. “Whether it is through the camp-to-forced-labor pipeline, the labor transfer system, or other methods of forced labor that have existed under the communist regime for decades, Uyghurs have no agency to refuse displacement or slave labor,” she said. “Dr. Zenz’s research also offers evidence that Uyghurs are punished for not participating in labor transfer programs. These conditions are forced upon the Uyghurs, as they have no option but to accept this fate for their existence.”

Uyghurs without stable or state-designated employment face higher risk of detention, said Zenz in his report, noting that Uyghur informants confirmed that in 2017 that participation in state policies was a “strategy for escaping internment.”

In his report, Zenz presents the first witness testimony to-date that confirms the practice of detention for refusing labor transfers. Gulzia (pseudonym), a former camp detainee, whose identity Zenz has confirmed and with whom he has spoken, testified how one of her cell mates from a rural Kashgar township had been detained for harboring “extreme religious thoughts” for wanting to stay at home to care for her two small children and help her elderly in-laws with farming, rather than accept a government-organized factory work assignment.

A second cell mate, likewise had been detained for “non-cooperation with [government] arrangements”, also a factory work assignment.

Beijing’s overarching goal through these policies is to enforce “lasting sociocultural change,” Zenz notes.

The problem with ILO

But tackling the Chinese state’s rejection of accusations against it is fraught, said Zenz in his report. “The widely used ILO indicators of forced labor are ill-suited, making it easier for Beijing to sign ILO agreements and pretend that coerced non-Han employment is now a normalized and acceptable arrangement,” Zenz said, adding that a “broader, society-wide analysis of recruitment and transfer mechanisms” is vital if the abuses caused by China’s policies are to be curbed.

“Although the situation may be changing, overall, we remain in a status quo situation where there is a mass arbitrary detention and involuntary labor. For example, it is possible (though evidence remains limited, given the difficulty of accessing independent information from the region) that new individuals are not being ‘re-educated,’ instead they may be given unjust prison sentences without access to a fair trial, and, in addition, as Dr Zenz underscores, the state labor transfer system does not just continue, but is growing,” Cranston of Anti-Slavery said.

“Given the ongoing genocide and the lack of unfettered access to the Uyghur region, it would be foolish to believe that Uyghurs have a free choice in the matter of being pressed into forced labor in any and all of its manifestations. Uyghurs are unable to openly discuss the atrocities without facing severe repercussions for themselves and their families,” said Abbas.

“At the end of the day all this matters to policy makers and ultimately to the person in the street because we don’t want to be complicit. We don’t want to finance the police state by buying goods made with forced labor,” Zenz told The China Project. .

“But to do so there has to be a clear understanding of Chinese propaganda and policy. We need to say ‘yes,’ there is poverty; ‘yes’ some of what the Chinese government is saying is true, but they conceal the main problem that this is a very large forced labor scheme, that carries a high risk of state imposed forced labor.”