Forced Labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Assessing the Continuation of Coercive Labor Transfers in 2023 and Early 2024

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 5

Press conference for the Xinjiang Information Office, February 9, 2023. (Source: Xinjiang Government)

Executive Summary:

  • Higher-level policy and state planning documents indicate that coercive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) employment and poverty alleviation policies are to continue at least through 2025. XUAR state and media sources document that these policies continue to be implemented.
  • The Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer program continues to expand and represents a non-internment state-imposed forced labor mobilization system. Forced labor transfers for 2023 exceeded those from the previous year and surpassed state-mandated quotas.
  • In 2023, Xinjiang significantly expanded the scale of the Pairing Assistance program, which facilitates cross-provincial labor transfers, aiming to increase transfers to other Chinese regions by 38 percent—levels exceeding those of any year since the mid-2010s. During his recent visit, Xi Jinping again endorsed this policy, which aims to reduce the “dominance” of the Uyghur population in their own homeland.
  • The “Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning Mechanism” was expanded in 2023 to extensively track the income and work situations of the lower-income population.
  • Xinjiang’s government has intensified employment and training requirements, aiming to ensure employment for every able person, as mandated in the 14th Five-Year Plan.
  • Also in 2023, Xinjiang drastically expanded its skills training efforts. The state increasingly targeted groups traditionally not engaged in these programs, with a view to transferring individuals into work in sectors known to use forced labor.
  • Land use rights, covering up to 90 percent of land in some areas, are being transferred away from local farmers to state-run cooperatives, forcing the local population into wage labor through coercive labor transfers.


Uyghur forced labor is a significant factor shaping the People Republic of China (PRC)’s relations with the United States and Europe (Journal of Human Trafficking, November 20, 2023). Xinjiang currently operates the world’s largest system of state-imposed forced labor. Coercive labor transfers and poverty alleviation practices in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have continued through early 2024. State work plans for this year mandate an intensification of employment requirements for the region’s targeted ethnic groups, and official labor transfer statistics reflect heightened work requirements first introduced in 2021. Xinjiang’s focus on these requirements intensifies the region’s forced labor risk, extending it into higher-skilled sectors while concealing its coercive nature.

PRC General Secretary Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang in August 2023. While there, he emphasized that though the region needed to develop, it should “ensure development with stability” and “must always give top priority to maintaining social stability,” concurrently promoting the “legalization and normalization of stability maintenance work” (CPC News, August 27, 2023). Xi also emphasized the need to “consolidate and expand poverty alleviation achievements (巩固拓展脱贫攻坚成果),” an expression frequently found in connection with the region’s current policy focus on “Preventing a Return to Poverty (防止返贫)” and on the creation of an “Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning Mechanism (失业监测预警机制).”

Current XUAR Party Secretary Ma Xingrui (马兴瑞) seeks to reinforce the fruits of the region’s re-education mass internment campaign and other assimilatory policies under the mantra of “high-quality development (高质量发)” (China Brief, 2022). The summary of Xi’s statements underscored this approach, citing the expression “high-quality development” five times, thereby highlighting its significance for the state’s long-term strategy for the region (CPC News, August 27, 2023).

Coercive poverty alleviation and employment policies are ideally-placed to fulfill Xi’s dual mandate of promoting stability maintenance and development. They enable the state to restructure ethnic societies by maximizing societal control through parent-child separation and to “optimize” the ethnic population structure by “reducing Uyghur population density” (Central Asian Survey, June 10, 2021). As noted by the “Nankai Report,” a high-profile Chinese academic research report, while the re-education camps represented a “drastic short-term measure,” labor transfers represent an important long-term “method to reform, meld and assimilate” Uyghurs (China Brief, March 2, 2021).

Xinjiang’s Two Coercive Labor Systems

From 2019, researchers have documented two major systems of forced labor targeting Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the XUAR (Journal of Political Risk, 2019):

(1) forced labor linked to the region’s re-education camps, whose designation the state gradually unified to the euphemistic “Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers (职业技能教育培训中心; VSETCs).” Detainees receive coerced skills training during internment and are then coercively placed into work (The China Journal, June 20, 2023); and

(2) the separate so-called “Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer policy (转移就业脱贫; or simply 转移就业),” which coercively trains and transfers non-detained rural surplus laborers from the primary (agricultural) sector into secondary or tertiary sector work (Central Asian Survey, November 30, 2023). Labor transfers also include coerced seasonal transfers of surplus laborers into seasonal agricultural work, such as harvesting cotton or tomatoes (Newlines Institute, December 14, 2020; CPCS, May 19, 2023).

The evidence indicates that since early 2020, the VSETC policy is no longer active, although waves of arbitrary detentions have since continued outside the VSETC system. Besides performing mass re-education, the VSETCs functioned as filtration camps, “releasing” those considered less problematic into forced labor while sentencing others (especially intellectual and business elites) to long prison terms (Journal of Contemporary China, January 30). While the VSETC system apparently no longer actively processes new victims, hundreds of thousands of detainees have been placed into forced labor and likely remain trapped in coercive work (The China Journal, June 20, 2023).

In contrast, Xinjiang’s Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer program continues to expand. Within the wider context of Xi Jinping’s Targeted Poverty Alleviation (精准扶贫) initiative, labor transfers are the coercive work policy that underpins most forced labor linked to the region (Central Asian Survey, November 30, 2023). While VSETC-linked forced labor placements can be linked to the production of textiles, electronics, and a few other labor-intensive products, Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer is the only forced labor policy that has been directly linked to the production of cotton, tomatoes and tomato products, peppers and seasonal agricultural products, seafood products, polysilicon production for solar panels, lithium for electric vehicle batteries, and aluminum for batteries, vehicle bodies, and wheels. [1]

Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer represents a non-internment state-imposed forced labor mobilization system. Such systems operating in the XUAR, the Tibet Autonomous Region, Uzbekistan (until 2021), and Turkmenistan share several core features (Journal of Human Trafficking, November 20, 2023). In contrast to company-based forced labor, these systems operate through a pervasively coercive social context marked by a lack of civic freedoms and an extensive grassroots bureaucracy designed to coercively mobilize targeted groups.

Currently Active XUAR Policies and Government Work Plans

Since 2020/2021—and especially under Ma Xingrui—Xinjiang has shifted to a strategy of normalization and institutionalization that emphasizes maintaining labor placements through intensified monitoring and surveillance. This is a move away from the campaign-driven transfer approach taken by Ma’s predecessor, Chen Quanguo (陈全). Under this new strategy, the state prevents people from returning to an unapproved state of low measurable income based on traditional livelihoods, including through abandoning state-arranged jobs (China Brief, June 5, 2022).

For the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021 to 2025), the XUAR instituted intensified employment and training requirements for targeted rural populations. In 2021 and 2022, this resulted in increased annual labor transfer figures compared to the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020). Labor transfers reached a record 3.17 million person-times (人次) in 2021 before leveling off at above 3.03 million person-times in 2022 (Central Asian Survey, November 30, 2023). [2]

Xinjiang’s 14th Five-Year Plan for Employment Promotion (2021 to 2025) mandates that not just one person per household but “every single person who is able to work is to realize employment” (XUAR Government, December 14, 2021). Governments at county and township levels must “comprehensively analyze the specific reasons for the decline in [a particular household’s] income.” The first listed countermeasure is labor transfer.

Several Uyghur regions published government work plans for 2023 indicating intensified employment efforts targeting Uyghur surplus laborers. For example, Hotan County’s 2023 work plan specified the construction of additional industrial parks, including parks jointly established with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), relying on industrial development to “provide more jobs for the masses” (Hotan County, October 1, 2023). Industrial parks are premier destinations for the most coercive forms of labor transfers and the forced work placements of re-education detainees. The 2023 work plan for Karakax County outlines a continued acceleration of industrial park expansion together with the promotion of “labor-intensive industrial clusters,” including the “vigorous development” of “labor-intensive enterprises focusing on socks, hair product processing, shoe leather manufacturing, textile and clothing, electronic product assembly, and light industrial manufacturing”—all industries at the highest risk of forced labor (Karakax County, January 5, 2023). The 2023 work plan for Yutian County outlined a labor transfer quota of 82,000 person-times, an increase of 1,000 over the 2022 quota, and planned a skills training “action plan” (Yutian County, September 27, 2023).

In January 2024, Xinjiang’s state media published an article announcing intensified efforts for economic and employment growth for 2024 (Xinjiang Daily, January 8). The article noted that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the PRC and represents a “critical” year for the achievement of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021 to 2025). It called on the Uyghur heartland region of Kashgar to “work hard to drive employment.” The most recent XUAR government work report, listing work goals for 2024, mandates that the state should “provide employment for ‘focus groups (重点群体)’ such as rural-urban migrant workers, and strive to ensure that all people in urban and rural areas who are able to work can find employment” (Tianshan, January 30). So-called “focus groups” or “focus persons” are those considered by the state to represent the highest security risk, and many of these had been subjected to re-education internment.

Evidence for Ongoing Labor Transfers (January 2023 to January 2024)

General Labor Transfer Evidence

By the third quarter of 2023, the XUAR had already exceeded its entire 2022 labor transfer volume of 3.03 million person-times. State media announced the transfer of 3.05 million person-times rural surplus laborers between January and September, surpassing the state-mandated quota by 10.9 percent (Xinhua, October 27, 2023). Kashgar Prefecture alone placed 1.05 million “rural laborers” into work, 34.4 percent of the regional total (Xinjiang News, December 21, 2023). This indicates a continuation of the region’s intensified employment and labor requirements, following the mandates for the 2021 to 2025 period stated in the region’s economic and employment-related Five-Year Plans. In March 2023, the XUAR issued the “Xinjiang 300,000 Construction Worker Three-Year Training and Employment Action Plan (2023-2025)” to “drive more surplus labor to find employment in the construction industry” (XUAR Government, March 18, 2023). 96,000 of these were to be trained and transferred in Kashgar Prefecture (The Paper, May 19, 2023).

Recent local work reports also reflect the continued achievement of the XUAR’s intensified employment requirements. For example, Yili Haosheng Muyi Biotechnology Co. (伊犁昊昇木驿生物科技) announced plans to build a third production line in 2024 to “solve the employment problem of more local surplus laborers” (Tianshan, January 1). A January 2024 article issued by the XUAR government to local media outlets noted that due to employment efforts throughout 2023, an ethnic village in Artush City successfully subjected all 1,606 villagers who met the state’s “employment conditions” to state-assigned work (Artush City, January 15). Of these, 157 or 9.8 percent were employed in other XUAR prefectures or other Chinese provinces such as Jiangsu and Shandong. This outcome was achieved through the deployment of “village-based work teams,” which have played a crucial role in the coercive mobilization of targeted ethnic populations. “Village-based work teams” go door-to-door to enforce state policy, monitor compliance, identify deviant citizens for re-education internment, and subject ethnic household members to skills training and work assignments (Central Asian Survey, November 30, 2023). Another January 2024 report published by Yining County details how, in November 2023, such work teams “devoted all their efforts” to promote the “transfer of the surplus workforce,” successfully “stimulating the inner motivation of [ethnic] villagers” (Yining County, January 17). In short, coercive labor mobilization continues unabated.

Cross-Provincial Labor Transfers Through Pairing Assistance

Coercive labor transfers of targeted ethnic populations to other provinces in China continued throughout 2023. During his visit to Xinjiang in August 2023, Xi Jinping argued that the Pairing Assistance program that links eastern Chinese provinces with ethnic regions in Xinjiang for cross-provincial labor transfers needed to be strengthened (CPC News, August 27, 2023). Xi exhorted the XUAR authorities to “do Pairing Assistance work well,” “guiding population groups from Xinjiang to find jobs throughout the PRC (要做好对口支援工作…鼓励和引导新疆群众到内地就业).”

In a significant development, the XUAR government stated that for 2023 the region was planning to increase the proportion of “poverty-alleviated laborers (脱贫人口务工)” transferred to other provinces from 2.54 to over 3.5 percent (State Council Information Office, February 27, 2023). Based on a 2023 goal to transfer at least 1.087 million of this sub-group of surplus laborers, this would mean an increase of 37.8 percent, from 27,600 in 2022 to over 38,000 laborers in 2023 transferred to other provinces. These figures do not include cross-provincial transfers of surplus laborers that fall outside this sub-group. This announcement therefore suggests a significant increase in cross-provincial labor transfers, given that in 2018, only approximately 25,000 surplus laborers (all types) had been transferred to other provinces (China Brief, March 2, 2021). [3]

In line with this XUAR-wide mandate, Kashgar Prefecture’s plans for 2023 lamented that too many rural Uyghurs were being placed into local (nearby) employment and that not enough were subjected to “organized transfer employment,” indicating a preference for and planned intensification of state-directed work assignments that transfer Uyghurs outside of their immediate home regions (Kashgar Government, April 13, 2023).

A September 2023 state media article reported that Hubei province accepted 4,100 workers, while Anhui province, which is paired with the Uyghur majority population county of Pishan (Hotan Prefecture), received a transfer of over 5,000 workers (People’s Daily, September 17, 2023). Among these, 295 Uyghurs were reported to have “settled down (落户安家)” in Anhui—a term that indicates a relocation of household registration, pointing to a more permanent labor transfer arrangement. This is a significant and concerning development, given that labor transfers are part of state efforts to “optimize” (i.e. reduce) the Uyghur population ratio in southern Xinjiang, in order to “end the dominance of the Uyghur ethnic group” in their own homeland (Central Asian Survey, June 10, 2021). In addition, Hubei province received 13,700 transferred laborers from Xinjiang between mid-2020 and mid-2023. It continues to employ such laborers in Xinjiang through Hubei-based companies operating local factories (Hubei government, July 4, 2023).

Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning

The XUAR has also continued and intensified the deployment of its “Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System,” first documented by the author in June 2022. In 2021, Xinjiang sent 400,000 cadres to investigate and monitor the poverty and income situations of 12 million rural households through an “early prevention, early intervention, early assistance” campaign that identified 774,000 households for “real-time monitoring” (China Daily, January 11, 2022).

A September 2023 XUAR government report described the use of such monitoring to continually increase targeted households’ “transfer income” (remittances of surplus laborers derived from non-agricultural work) (NRRA, September 12, 2023). Monitoring efforts were to be intensified. An August 2023 notice from the XUAR “Work Conference on Consolidating and Expanding the Fruits of Poverty Alleviation” stated that officials must improve their “political stance” in grasping the importance of poverty alleviation work, to “resolutely consolidate and expand the results of poverty alleviation,” an effort that was to involve “strengthened tracking and monitoring” of the income and work situation of lower-income rural populations (NRRA, August 2, 2023).

Enforcing Labor Transfers Through Land Usage Rights Transfers

In 2023, the XUAR also continued its coercive transfer of agricultural land from predominantly ethnic smallholder farmers to large state-run or state-supervised cooperatives (CPCS, May 19, 2023). Land transfers are a primary method for coercing Uyghurs and other ethnic group members into livelihood changes through labor transfers. After surrendering their land usage rights, surplus laborers are then “liberated” to enter labor transfers into secondary or tertiary work.

In 2023 in a Zhaosu County township, usage rights for 90 percent of agricultural land had been transferred (Legal Daily, November 7, 2023). In one of the township’s villages alone, over 500 rural surplus laborers were subjected to labor transfers after usage rights to thousands of acres of their land were shifted. The township party committee secretary emphasized that “the township actively guides farmers to voluntarily transfer land use rights to large-scale [agricultural] planters.”

Seasonal Labor Transfers

Xinjiang’s 14th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan (2021 to 2025) has mandated closer cooperation between XPCC and other regions for an “enlarged” promotion of seasonal (harvest-related) agricultural labor transfers (CPCS, May 19, 2023). An April 2022 article on Xinjiang’s employment programs and labor transfers affirms that the “vast scale” of cotton, tomato, and other plantations in southern Xinjiang continues to “provide an abundance of short-term employment avenues” (Tianshan, April 7, 2022).

Seasonal labor transfers of predominantly ethnic rural surplus laborers for seasonal agricultural work have continued. An April 2023 report on China News stated that in Luntai County, tomato-processing companies received 150 laborers for seasonal labor (China News, April 20, 2023). Similar arrangements were reported for another township in Luntai, involving 245 rural laborers. In the same month, a township in Kashgar Prefecture received a batch of transferred rural surplus laborers to cultivate (plant, tend, harvest) peppers. The report noted that the region needed “large numbers of workers” and that the state was engaging in “vigorously organizing villagers” for such work (The Paper, April 21, 2023). Another report noted similar arrangements for Wensu County, stating that local governments were “conducting a thorough survey of the rural surplus labor force in the entire township and actively guiding the farmers” to address the “labor shortage problems during the busy farming season” (China News, April 19, 2023).

The concurrent publication of numerous similar articles on the subject indicates the presence of a XUAR-wide seasonal labor campaign to meet staffing needs for labor-intensive agricultural work. Such campaigns develop significant coercive pressures, heightening forced labor risks (Newlines Institute, December 14, 2020).

State-Mandated Vocational Skills Training Quotas

As part of the 14th Five-Year Plan, the XUAR government is aiming to significantly expand its vocational training efforts, increasing average annual training volumes from 1.2 million to 1.5 million person-sessions (China Brief, 2022; XUAR Government, December 14, 2021). Vocational skills training in the context of poverty alleviation and labor transfer policies is part of a process that creates high coercive labor risks for targeted ethnic groups.

State reports confirm that throughout 2023, the government “intensified vocational skills training” and had directed regional authorities to “vigorously carry out order-oriented” work placements for targeted groups, including “focus groups such as those who are difficult to employ” (Xinjiang Daily, January 19). In 2023, the XUAR conducted a record-setting 2.5 million person-times vocational skills training sessions, exceeding its goal for that year of 1.5 million by 66.6 percent. Xinjiang’s high-pressure campaign to meet and exceed training and transfer targets for lower-income rural populations (predominantly Uyghurs) is being implemented with greater intensity than expected.

Local examples show how the expansion of skills training means that the state is increasingly targeting populations that have traditionally not sought to engage in vocational skills training or labor transfers—namely, women in traditional homemaker and caretaker roles. [4] These groups are at highest risk of coercion. For example, a village in Yili Prefecture has been “vigorously” implementing the directive to have ethnic women “leave [their] land but not [their] township,” transferring them from traditional agricultural livelihoods to local factory work (Gongliu County, January 16). In this case, 50 ethnic women were subjected to training in sewing skills, a sector that is strongly implicated in forced labor.

Previously, labor transfers implicated only lower-skilled sectors in forced labor. However, intensified skills and in-company training efforts have increased the forced labor risk. Recent propaganda reports exemplify this. For example, a February 2023 report discusses how over time, a transferred Uyghur rural surplus laborer employed by a civil engineering company came to be “transformed into a skilled worker” (China Union, February 24, 2023).


Higher-level policy and state planning documents indicate that coercive XUAR employment and poverty alleviation policies are to continue at least through 2025. XUAR state and media sources document that these policies continue to be implemented.

The intensification of labor transfers in the context of the XUAR’s recent Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning campaign significantly increased forced labor risks, given that these efforts target groups that have traditionally not chosen to pursue secondary or tertiary sector employment that requires them to abandon farming and/or to surrender their long-standing land usage rights (Central Asian Survey, November 30, 2023). Increased employment requirements targeting ethnic groups have resulted in soaring foreign trade figures in Uyghur heartland regions, implicating global supply chains (The Hill, November 9, 2023).

Xinjiang’s recent policy changes have rendered forced labor less visible and more challenging to conceptualize. By leveraging poverty alleviation policies to normalize and institutionalize mass coercive work, Xinjiang continues its fundamental strategic shift away from institutions of the state’s domestic security apparatus, focused on re-education and internment, and toward entities overseen by the Development and Reform Commission (ChinaFile, May 24, 2022). As a result, Uyghur forced labor is becoming both more prevalent and more insidious (The China Project, October 26, 2023).


[1] Zenz, A. (2023). Coercive Labor in the Cotton Harvest in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Uzbekistan: A Comparative Analysis of State-Sponsored Forced Labor. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 56(2), 1–32. (free download at; Halper, E. (2023, September 18). EV Makers’ Use of Chinese Suppliers Raises Concerns about Forced Labor. The Washington Post.; Swanson, A., & Buckley, C. (2021, January 8). Chinese Solar Companies Tied to Use of Forced Labor. The New York Times.; Murphy, L., et al. Driving Force. Sheffield Hallam University.; Urbina, I. (2023, October 9). The Uyghurs forced to process the world’s fish. The New Yorker. Human Rights Watch (2024, February). Asleep at the Wheel – Car Companies’ Complicity in Forced Labor in China.

[2] Transfer figures are not cumulative as surplus laborers are transferred annually. Figures are given as “person-times (人次),” resulting from the fact that laborers can be transferred multiple times per year (the difference between “persons” and “person-times” amounts to roughly 10-11 percent, meaning that the number of distinct transferred individuals represents 89-90 percent of the stated “person-times” figure).

[3] Between January and November 2018, the XUAR transferred 25,378 surplus laborers (from within a total of 2.796 million person-times transfers for all of 2018) to other provinces (PRC government, December 26, 2018). For additional evidence that the 1.087 million figure refers to “poverty-alleviated laborers (脱贫人口务工),” workers who were “freed” from poverty and who are performing state-arranged or state-approved labor to prevent them from encountering a lower measurable income level, see People’s Daily, August 11, 2023.

[4] See related discussion in Zenz, A. (2023). The Conceptual Evolution of Poverty Alleviation Through Labour Transfer in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Central Asian Survey, 42(4), 649-673.