Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning: New Trends in Xinjiang’s Coercive Labor Placement Systems

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 11

Laborers at an embroidery factory in Xinjiang (source: CGTN)


In mid-2019, the first efforts to systematically research and conceptualize state-sponsored forced labor systems in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) took place (Journal of Political Risk, December 2019). First, this research examined the placement of detainees in Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers (VSETCs, 职业技能教育培训中心, zhiye jineng jiaoyu peixun zhongxin), which function as re-education camps; and second, the findings detailed the transfer of rural surplus laborers (农村劳动者转移就业, nongcun laodongzhe zhuanyi jiuye) into secondary or tertiary sector work – referred to as Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer (脱贫转移就业, tuopin zhuanyi jiuye). In addition to general evidence for coercive labor placements into labor-intensive manufacturing, scholars uncovered evidence of coercive labor transfers for specific economic sectors such as cotton and tomato picking, as well as the production of polysilicon for solar panels  (Newlines Institute, December 2020; CBC News, October 29, 2021; Bloomberg, April 2021).[1] Much of the evidence implicating these industries came from publicly available government data, media or company reports, typically dating from between 2017 and 2020. Unfortunately, since then, such evidence has become much sparser. This examination argues that this falloff in information is not just due to government censorship. Rather, it also reflects systemic and concerning changes to the ways that coercive labor placements in Xinjiang are being consolidated.

After the successes of the highly mobilizational labor placement efforts between 2016 and 2020, Xinjiang’s current (14th) Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) focuses on consolidating and maintaining these outcomes through unemployment and poverty prevention and surveillance mechanisms. Individuals who were coercively mobilized into work placements are now effectively prevented from leaving them. Since 2021, hundreds of thousands of cadres are conducting real-time monitoring of rural Uyghurs’ employment and income status. This general shift away from mobilizational to more institutionalized and monitored forms of labor placement simultaneously reduces the publication of specific evidence (propaganda texts) that typically accompany such campaign-style experimental efforts, while intensifying and institutionalizing the risk of coercion. Despite the decrease in concrete publicly available evidence, the new developments are increasing both the scale and the scope of coercive labor, expanding it to higher-skilled sectors. This has profound implications for researchers and policymakers.

This report analyzes new and highly authoritative sources – Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plans – to pinpoint the first half of 2017 as the juncture when labor transfers became highly coercive, which is concurrent with the mass internment campaign in Xinjiang. Additionally, this is the first examination to draw on evidence from internal speeches by central government leaders (the “Xinjiang Papers”) in 2014 that set the stage for a foundational policy shift. Thereby, the primary objective of Xinjiang’s labor placements has become even more political than before. Understanding the unique nature and Beijing’s ultimate objectives of these coercive labor systems is crucial for developing effective countermeasures.

The evidence and analysis presented below concerns only coercive labor through the transfer of rural surplus laborers (Jamestown Foundation, March 2021). Since 2019, virtually no new documentary or conceptual evidence on forced work placements of VSETC detainees has emerged, and it is unclear if significant new developments on this front can be expected (most VSETC detainee work placements occurred between 2018 and 2020; see Journal of Political Risk, December 2019; February 2020). Additional witness testimony has been important, but has not unveiled new conceptual or other developments. The forced work placement of likely hundreds of thousands VSETC detainees continues to implicate many labor-intensive manufacturing sectors, especially textiles and garments. Rural surplus laborers who refuse state-mandated labor transfer placements remain at risk of penalization through internment in re-education camps.

Coercive Labor Transfers in Xinjiang: A Side Product of Beijing’s Political Goals

Any analysis of coercive labor and related countermeasures must consider the shift in political priorities mandated by the central government in 2014. The Xinjiang Papers, a set of classified internal state documents, contain confidential speeches by central government leaders from 2014 that outline Beijing’s political objectives for employment-creation (Uyghur Tribunal, December 9, 2021).

In 2014, General Secretary Xi Jinping stated that ethnic groups should undertake enterprise work. He argued that large numbers of unemployed persons will “provoke trouble”; in contrast, enterprise employment is “conducive to ethnic interaction, exchanges and blending” and makes ethnic groups “study Chinese culture.” [2]

Premier Li Keqiang argued that “people without land, employment or a fixed income have nothing to do and wander all day; … they will also be easily exploited by evildoers.”  Therefore, Xinjiang must “transform [people’s] way of thinking about employment” and “vigorously develop labor-intensive industries that absorb more employment.”

Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) Member Yu Zhengsheng stated economic development “must absolutely be subservient to [the goals of] social and long-term peace and stability.” He noted that Xinjiang’s “requirements for the development of labor-intensive industries are particularly urgent,” not because these industries were likely to “contribute more to economic growth,” but because “they are particularly important for employment and for promoting exchanges and the integration of various ethnic groups.”

These statements all highlight the primacy of political over economic drivers – a clear departure from the region’s prior policy focus of achieving social stability through economic growth. Research clearly shows how after 2014, Xinjiang’s labor transfers increased in scale and became progressively more coercive (Jamestown Foundation, March 2, 2021).

In addition to seeking cultural assimilation and greater state control, Beijing also pursues labor transfers in order to alter ethnic population structures. The Nankai Report, a crucial Chinese research document outlining the securitized transfer of Uyghurs to other provinces, states that labor transfers help “reduce Uyghur population density in Xinjiang.” Based on the Nankai Report, an independent legal analysis concluded that Xinjiang’s labor transfers meet the criteria of the Crimes Against Humanity of forcible transfer and of persecution as defined by the International Criminal Court (Jamestown Foundation, March 2, 2021). Labor transfers of Uyghurs from southern Xinjiang to regions dominated by Han Chinese populations feature prominently in Chinese academic and state discourses on “population optimization” – attempts to reduce Uyghur population density and alter ethnic population distributions (increasing Han populations) for national security purposes (Central Asian Survey, 2021).

Since the goal of stability maintenance has been achieved, the regional government is now focusing on long-term economic development. However, Xinjiang’s continued social stability is predicated upon ensuring that ethnic minority citizens remain in state-controlled and economically productive factory settings. Therefore, the region’s coercive labor systems remain necessary for the ongoing achievement and consolidation of political goals.

“Train all who should be trained”: The Highly Mobilization Labor Transfer Phase 2016 to 2020

These new priorities were directly reflected in Xinjiang’s macro-level planning documents. Xinjiang’s 12th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan (2011-2015) hardly mentioned labor transfers and in both instances described them as a “voluntary” process (Shihezi University, January 18, 2011).  In contrast, the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) strongly emphasized labor transfers and state-led employment. It verbatim repeated Xi Jinping’s demand from 2014 to “systematically expand the scale of [relocating] Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities to other parts of China to receive education, employment, and residence,” and for the first time outlined annual labor transfer targets (of at least 2.2 million) (National Development and Reform Commission [NDRC], May 2016). Local governments were to assign work to urban “zero job households” within 24 hours.

The point at which Xinjiang’s labor transfers became highly coercive coincided with the beginning of the mass internment campaign in the first half of 2017.

Xinjiang’s 13th Five-Year Poverty Alleviation Plan from June 2017 first adopted the new central government concept of Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer (转移就业脱贫, zhuanyi jiuye tuopin) (XUAR Government, May 19, 2017). The plan noted that poor people’s “labor and employment willingness and abilities are insufficient.” Relying heavily on employment creation and labor transfers, it repeated five times that locals’ “inner motivation” is insufficient and must be “stimulated.” People’s outdated mindset of “waiting, relying, wanting” must be “eradicated.” The Plan reiterated that “curing poverty means to first cure ignorance and backwardness.” Every household without (a form of state-approved) employment must have at least one person “realize employment.”

Also in mid-2017, the XUAR published a more targeted Regional Development and Poverty Alleviation Implementation Plan for southern Xinjiang (Alashankou City Government, May 10, 2017).” It specified all-out social mobilization efforts to “stimulate [people’s] drive and determination to change [their] situation of poverty [and to] change [people’s attitude] from ‘I am wanted to get rid of poverty’ to ‘I want to get rid of poverty’”.

This sharp turn towards more coercive mobilizational approaches coincided with Chen Quanguo’s ascent as Xinjiang party secretary in 2016. In January 2018, the government then initiated a special plan to transfer laborers from poor counties in southern Xinjiang to other regions (PRC government, June 9, 2018). Imitating language from the concurrent mass internment campaign, the plan mandated to “train all who should be trained” (应培尽培, yingpei jinpei). Other reports described the effort as “transfer all who should be transferred” (应转尽转, ying zhuan jin zhuan; Xinjiang Minsheng Net, April 8, 2019).

Between 2016 and 2020, Xinjiang had planned to annually transfer 2.2 million rural surplus laborers. It exceeded this goal by over 30 percent, transferring 2.87 million workers per year. In 2021, the region set a record by transferring a staggering 3.2 million surplus laborers, 15.4 percent more than planned (XUAR government, February 7). This new record is not a coincidence, but a result of Xinjiang’s current intensified approach to Poverty Alleviation through Labor Transfer.

Monitoring and Prevention: New Trends in Labor Transfers and Employment-Based Poverty Alleviation 2021 to 2025

After the successes of the highly mobilizational labor transfer campaigns (2016 -2020), Xinjiang’s current (14th) Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan (2021-2025) focuses on consolidating, maintaining and expanding these outcomes. In short, those who were coercively mobilized into work placements are now effectively prevented from leaving them.

Xinjiang’s key regional and local Five-Year Plans (2021-2025) reflect the following significant new developments:

  • A new full employment requirement whereby all persons able to work are to work (previously, this extended to only at least one person per household)
  • Strong focus on preventing people from returning to poverty through decreased income, through an Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System” (失业监测预警机制, shiye jiance yujingji). [3]
  • Expanded vocational training, increasing average annual training volumes from 1 million to 1.5 million person-sessions (XUAR government, December 14, 2021).
  • Large-scale promotion of “order-oriented employment skills training” (订单式就业技能培训, dingdan shi jiuye jineng peixun) wherein companies place orders for workers, and the state takes, trains and delivers them to these companies.

Xinjiang’s 14th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan orders officials to “persist in combining local nearby employment and transfer and [labor] export employment, causing every able-bodied person to achieve stable employment” (NDRC, June 11, 2021). Similarly, the 14th Five-Year Employment Promotion Plan states the need to “diligently cause every single person who is able to work to realize employment” (XUAR government, December 14, 2021). This expansion is concerning, as those who are currently not in full-time employment often have other duties, including familial responsibilities; shifting mothers and working-age persons in caretaking roles into such work runs a high risk of coercion. The Xinjiang’s Women’s Development Plan (2021-2025), which outlines detailed targets for the “development” of the female population, specifies an expansion of rural women’s labor transfers (National Working Committee, January 24).

Xinjiang’s current development plans lack some of the highly coercive mobilizational language that was commonplace in the 2016-2020 period. This is because the remarkable successes in mobilizing rural surplus laborers are now being consolidated through a normalization of labor transfer and employment mechanisms. The 14th Five-Year Employment Promotion Plan warns that “a large number of rural laborers need continuous and stable employment.” In southern Xinjiang, particularly, the “comprehensive quality of rural laborers…is not high,” resulting in a mismatch between the economic need for higher-skilled workers and an abundance of low-skilled labor. The plan cautions this mismatch is becoming the most prominent problem in Xinjiang’s labor market. Therefore, the region must promote the “institutionalization of medium- and long-term employment work” to create an “institutionalized development pattern.” The state’s solution to this challenge is more institutionalized control and surveillance of the surplus workforce, along with intensified vocational training efforts. For 2021-2025, the XUAR plans to increase training intensity from 1 million to 1.5 million person-sessions per year (XUAR government, December 14, 2021). This will ensure that persons subjected to coercive labor transfers gradually enter more highly skilled employment, increasing the scope of Xinjiang’s forced labor issue. In 2021, Xinjiang achieved this new goal by conducting 1.48 million vocational training sessions (PRC Central Government, February 25). The state’s new mantra here is “high-quality development” (高质量发展, gao zhiliang fazhan), an increasingly ubiquitous concept in state planning documents.

The Xinjiang 13th Five-Year Poverty Alleviation Plan from June 2017 first mandated the creation of the Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System to support the achievement of employment targets. The 14th Five-Year Employment Promotion Plan mandates that this system be “improved.” Governments at “county and township levels” must “comprehensively analyze the specific reasons for the decline in [a particular household’s] income,” and the first listed countermeasure is labor transfer. Therefore, this system prevents households from exiting labor transfers for work with decreased measurable incomes. State media reports confirm the implementation of a four-color early warning code for all administrative levels, who must dynamically provide “timely assistance” if a household’s income threatens to fall below the poverty threshold (Xinjiang Daily, March 31, 2020). At the Third Central Xinjiang Work Forum (第三次中央新疆工作座谈会,di san ci zhongyang Xinjiang zuotan hui), Xi himself ordered the region to improve and complete its Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System (PRC Embassy in Sweden, November 12, 2020).

Xinjiang’s 13th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan noted three times the need to increase “inner motivation” (内生动力, neisheng dongli) of those who, according to the state, lack the drive for gainful employment in state-sanctioned settings. Xinjiang’s 14th Plan only mentions this term once. Local plans indicate how recently implemented coercive training and transfer programs have “succeeded” in addressing this “inner motivation” problem to inculcate desired qualities in ethnic laborers. Hotan County’s 14th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan lauds the fact that:

[T]he scale of industrial workers who understand the national language, know technology, and observe discipline is constantly expanding, providing strong human support for accelerating the construction of a modern industrial system…(Hotan County Government, January 14, 2021)

As this achievement has been largely based on coercive skills training involving military drill, political indoctrination, and assimilation, it is safe to say that in Uyghur regions, the past several years of Xinjiang’s forced labor training and placement practice now form the bedrock of the region’s future industrial and economic policy.

These changes have significant consequences for how coercive labor is discussed in state media. During the previous highly mobilizational phase, the state frequently documented purported successes of coercive labor mobilization through boastful propaganda stories from the ground. These accounts, which serve the important political purposes of disseminating the results of policy experimentation and signaling local governments’ active involvement to their superiors, usually gave specific local examples of coercion that implicated particular companies. In the current institutionalization phase, such sources are less relevant and have already become much less common (also due to state censorship). Instances of coercive mobilization continue per current policy priorities, but they are no longer the primary policy enforcement mechanism.

Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning: Examples from Uyghur Regions

Local Five-Year plans in key southern Uyghur-majority regions frequently use stronger, more specific language when describing these systems. Hotan County’s 14th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan speaks of “resolutely holding the bottom line of no large-scale returns to poverty” (Hotan county, January 14, 2021). Instead of emphasizing labor transfers, it stresses the need to “consolidate” poverty alleviation gains by “perfecting monitoring and assistance systems and mechanisms that prevent a return to poverty.” This includes implementing “income monitoring” as a mechanism for “early detection, early intervention, [and] early assistance.” Karakax County’s identical plan mandates “monitoring of households with a sudden decrease in income” (Karakax county, December 2020). Kashgar City’s plan exhorts officials to “resolutely prevent a return to poverty” (Kashgar City Development and Reform Committee, February 9). Kashgar’s Bachu County describes this monitoring mechanism as an employment-related “emergency response system” (Bachu county, October 11, 2020).

Xinjiang’s Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System uses several mechanisms that also enforce the region’s preventative policing and societal securitization mechanisms. Big data analysis is provided by the Poverty Alleviation Big Data Platform (脱贫攻坚大数据平台, tuopin gongjian da shuju pingtai), grid management, mass mobilization of cadres, and village-based work teams – the same entities identifying persons for internment in re-education camps (Xinhua, September 22, 2020). 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). The goal is to undertake full quarterly monitoring campaigns using grassroots cadres and village work teams together with big data analysis (State Council Information Office, February 26).

State propaganda accounts outline several instances of such early interventions, often focusing on families that suffered external shocks (e.g., decreased income or increased expenses). However, both local testimonies and descriptions of the mechanisms involved indicate that the Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System promotes even greater levels of state-mandated labor among rural populations. In one instance, a construction worker with high blood pressure was assigned less strenuous work in a garment factory. The previous employment status of his wife, who suffers from a kidney disease, is unclear. However, after this household’s return to poverty was prevented, she was also made to work – as a cleaner. The somewhat surprising measure of assigning physically demanding work to an apparently chronically ill person is possibly because this household includes seven persons. Without both adults working, the household’s per person income would likely fall below the poverty line.

Moreover, full employment has become a region wide target. A village party secretary emphasizes that “to prevent a return to poverty, we cannot rely on giving money to support people, to prevent falling into the welfare trap, and policies to support lazy people” (China Daily, January 11). This reasoning mirrors that of Xi, who in a December 2021 address argued that China must not go down the path of “welfarism” (福利主义, fuli zhuyi), which he referred to as an erroneous strategy pursued by populist Latin American regimes that produced “lazy people” (懒人, lanren; Qiushi, May 15).

Consequently, poverty prevention mechanisms involve creating a “stable mental foundation” in those who are “lazy.” A state account from Jiashi County gives the example of a “lazy” man who “could not even do a full day’s work” (Xinjiang Daily, April 12). However, the man notes how village cadres “fundamentally changed my thinking” and gave him a “new life” – language that is very similar to the forced testimonies of former re-education detainees. Interviewed officials emphasize that locals who “lack ambition” to work are targeted with “various methods” that “stimulate their inner motivation.” While Xinjiang’s current job placement efforts are on the whole less reliant on large-scale mobilization campaigns, they continue to specifically target households and persons whose income is near the state’s poverty line, and where full employment is unrealized.

Similarly, another state media account argues that to prevent a return to poverty, officials must “stimulate [people’s] inner motivation so that the poverty-stricken households can continue to increase their income,” and that this is a key area of focus for disciplinary inspection and supervision organs at all administrative levels (People.cn, August 2, 2020). The article notes that in Yingjisha County, the Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision visited 2,165 households and investigated 489 households that had been alleviated from poverty in order to assess their employment situations. Government reports indicate that households with declining incomes receive “targeted assistance measures,” most notably, industry-based development and public welfare jobs are allotted to those whose skills are too low for labor transfers (Hotan Prefecture Government, December 15, 2021). Only those who are literally “unable to work” are eligible for social security benefits instead of employment.

Another report describes how “in the process of monitoring the prevention of a return to poverty,” an ethnic minority region successfully completed the task of putting all 1,872 able villagers into employment (China Daily, January 11). This again indicates how anti-poverty monitoring mechanisms and work processes are used to intensify potentially coercive labor placements in predominantly ethnic regions.

Overall, Xinjiang’s approach to prevent people from returning to poverty appears to have intensified state-mandated labor placement measures. The new system implements the recently adopted full employment requirements. Coercive mobilizational campaigns may still be used, especially in regions where employment rates are lagging, but the overall emphasis has shifted to institutionalization and monitoring mechanisms.

New Developments in Labor Transfers to Other Provinces

Since 2020, the Xinjiang government has stopped publishing annual figures on transfers of rural surplus laborers to other provinces. The so-called Nankai Report, a frank internal assessment of such transfers by Chinese academics, documented the securitized and potentially coercive nature of such transfers (Jamestown Foundation, March 2021). The report estimates that 76,000 laborers were transferred between 2017 and 2019, approximately 25,000 annually. Xinjiang’s September 2020 white paper on employment rights noted that between 2014 and mid-2020, 117,000 surplus laborers were part of such transfers (Xinhua, September 17, 2020). . For 2020, a transfer of 20,000 laborers was planned (CCTV, May 13, 2020).

Xinjiang’s 13th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plan first established an annual quota of 10,000 cross-provincial labor transfers. The 14th plan makes a rather general mention of the concept, which indicates the practice has continued. In fact, it appears to be very much alive. In 2020, Hotan officials suggested their prefecture alone should transfer 20,000 rural surplus laborers annually to eastern China. Similarly, the 14th Five-Year Social and Economic Development Plans in Hotan and Qiemo counties, both ethnic regions, call for “increased expansion of the intensity of organized labor export” to other prefectures and provinces (Hotan county, January 14, 2021; Qiemo county, March 22). The plan for Bachu county, a Uyghur majority population region in Kashgar prefecture with a high share of ethnic rural laborers, specifies an expansion of “employment channels for labor transfers inside and outside Xinjiang” (Bachu County, October 11, 2021). These mandates are consistent with wider political goals of assimilation and population optimization that are important to the central leadership in Beijing, and therefore are unlikely to be easily abandoned.

In sum, despite the discontinuation of official reporting, it is safe to assume that Xinjiang’s annual labor transfer volume to other provinces continues at volumes comparable to previous years (approximately 20,000 to 25,000). However, these transfers are now undocumented and therefore more difficult to track.

Estimating the Current Scale of Coercive Labor in Xinjiang

Based on figures from 2019 of 2.59 million rural surplus laborers for all of Xinjiang and 1.65 million for the southern Uyghur majority regions, the author previously estimated that up to 1.6 million ethnic citizens in Xinjiang are at risk of coercive labor through state-mandated transfers (Jamestown Foundation, March 2021). In addition, at least several hundred thousand former VSETC (vocational re-education camp) detainees are also estimated as at risk of forced labor.

In 2021, Xinjiang transferred 3.17 million surplus laborers (some multiple times), an increase of 10.5 percent or 300,000 over 2019 (Tianshan Net, October 10, 2020). [4] Initial evidence from Xinjiang’s increasingly pervasive Unemployment Monitoring and Early Warning System indicates these additionally-transferred laborers are at significant risk of coercion. Chinese academic studies previously analyzed by the author indicate that those who had previously chosen not to participate in such transfers or in full-time wage labor generally had reasons to do so (Jamestown Foundation, March 2021).  However, these are population groups or household members that the state labels “idle” – an unacceptable condition, especially under the new full employment target.

Consequently, the number of transferred rural surplus laborers at risk of coercive labor likely approaches two million. Together with former VSETC detainees sent to work in factories, between two to two and a half million persons in Xinjiang are estimated to be at risk of coercive labor.

Recent Trends in Xinjiang’s Foreign Trade: Soaring Export Volumes in Southern Xinjiang

In 2021, Xinjiang’s direct trade with other countries increased 5.8 percent. Of the total export value, 51.4 percent comprised labor-intensive products, especially textile and garment production, which is concerning as these sectors are those most likely to involve Uyghur forced labor (Urumqi Customs, 2021). The export volume of such products grew 31 percent in 2021. In the first four months of 2022, the value share of exported labor-intensive products among all exports continued to grow even faster at 63.4 percent year-on-year, outpacing the region’s total export volume which grew 45.4 percent during that time (China Daily, May 14). These figures reflect the success of Beijing’s intensified coercive labor strategy in the region. This directly contradicts a reported statement by Madelaine Tuininga, head of the European Commission Directorate for Trade’s sustainable development department, who in the context of this issue implied that “goods produced with forced labor only represent a small part of all the goods produced in a region” (South China Morning Post, May 13).

In 2021, direct trade between XUAR and the United States declined 61.3 percent to $372 million, likely as a result of supply chain divestments and sanctions (Xinjiang Government, 2022). However, Xinjiang’s trade with the European Union (EU) rose 13.6 percent to $1.24 billion (Urumqi Customs, 2021). Trade with Vietnam grew by a stunning 108.9 percent to $408 million. This is noteworthy, Xinjiang could be using Vietnam to circumvent U.S. import sanctions, especially for cotton textile products.

State reports about growing Xinjiang-EU trade relations are boastful, highlighting both increased volumes and the large number of trains connecting the two regions (China Daily, March 21). The reports invariably underscore that this directly aligns with the political aims of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the Xinjiang Papers, Xi stated that Xinjiang needed to be pacified due to its geostrategic significance for the BRI. Increased trade between Xinjiang and the EU is therefore not just an economic but also a directly political objective, and as a result, Beijing can be expected to deploy measures that promote and increase such trade if the EU fails to take effective countermeasures.

In the first four months of 2022, Xinjiang’s total foreign trade volume (exports and imports) rose 33.7 percent over the previous year (China Daily, May 14). However, the foreign trade volume of key Uyghur majority population regions in southern Xinjiang that are core targets for coercive poverty alleviation and labor transfers grew much faster. Foreign trade volumes of Kashgar, Hotan, Kizilsu and Aksu prefectures soared by 105.7, 273.6, 273.7 and 99 percent respectively during the same time (China Daily, May 14). This trend is troubling but not unexpected, given that in December 2021, Beijing replaced Xinjiang’s party secretary Chen Quanguo with Ma Xingrui, a technocrat from Guangdong with extensive experience promoting economic development (Reuters, December 29, 2021). During his first visits to southern Xinjiang’s Uyghur regions (Hotan prefecture), Ma emphasized that following the “victory in poverty alleviation,” the region must “vigorously develop labor-intensive industries” (Tacheng Prefecture Government, January 10). In line with Ma’s technocratic and development-oriented outlook, Xinjiang is said to be developing a distinctly “export-oriented economy” (外向型经济; waixiangxing jingji; China Daily, May 14).

Previously, Hotan Prefecture, similarly a core part of the Uyghur heartland regions, experienced an expansion of foreign trade by 235.6 percent in 2019 and by a further 51.4 percent in the first 11 months of 2020 (Aksu News, January 6, 2021). Hotan’s key export products are all linked to labor-intensive manufacturing or agricultural processing, and include hair products, footwear, textiles, clothing, agricultural products, luggage, toys, and small appliances. Available data indicates a likely further increase of exports of products linked to labor-intensive manufacturing that rely heavily on coercive Poverty Alleviation Through Labor Transfer mechanisms.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

Just as the upscaling of Xinjiang’s most coercive labor transfers broadly coincided with the campaign of mass internment, both the re-education drive and this labor placement system have now shifted from highly mobilizational and experimental to more institutionalized forms. Chen Quanguo oversaw both of these campaigns. His core expertise was the use of high-powered mobilizational drives – both for re-education internment and for labor placements. Chen’s successor appears to have been tasked to render the results of both campaigns sustainable in the long term. In April 2022, Ma Xingrui asserted that “people deceived by extremist ideology” would still be “rescued” (a euphemism for re-education). He also emphasized that the region will “never allow the hard-won situation of [social] stability to be reversed” (China.com.cn, April 22). To this end, Xinjiang will “promote the normalization” of “counterterrorism and stability maintenance,” and “optimize [its] counterterrorism and stability maintenance policies.” This indicates a shift from campaign-style mobilizational forms of mass internment to a more institutionalized way of continuing what will likely be more targeted (rather than highly indiscriminate) forms of re-education and internment.

The implications of these trends are three-fold.

First, the prevalence of coercive forms of labor placements in Xinjiang is pervasive and large-scale. Recent trends only reinforce these developments as the scope and scale of coercive labor transfers increased in 2021. Through intensified vocational training and ongoing state-led economic development efforts, coercive labor is likely to expand from predominantly low-skilled into increasingly more high-skilled industrial sectors.

Second, the systemic nature of coercive labor in Xinjiang is the product of political objectives that can only be reached by shifting millions of Uyghur laborers from rural to industrial livelihoods, breaking up traditional communities, and transferring ethnic minorities to Han majority regions. This explains why Beijing considers western countermeasures on Xinjiang a red line. In early 2021, state-orchestrated smear campaigns and consumer boycotts targeted western companies that had divested from Xinjiang. In summer 2021, China passed a countersanctions law that punishes companies who comply with western sanctions. As a result, companies who proactively adjust their supply chains and take due diligence seriously are liable to be penalized by the Chinese state. This could reduce their incentives to proactively perform due diligence. It has also certainly made companies far less likely to publicly commit to divesting from Xinjiang-linked supply chains and to increase the transparency of their due diligence efforts.

Third, Xinjiang’s recent shift from highly mobilizational to more institutionalized and monitored forms of managing labor placements has further reduced the availability of on-the-ground propaganda and state media reports. This shifting evidence situation has made research far more challenging, if not impossible. At the same time, in-person supply chain auditing in Xinjiang is not feasible, as the ever-expanding surveillance state severely punishes those who speak out. Such auditing has also become much more challenging in China in general (Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2020; Axios, June 23, 2021).

All three of these trends and developments point toward the same policy implication: rather than placing the responsibility for countering coercive labor linked to Xinjiang on individual companies, governments need to create a rebuttable presumption that any products originating from Xinjiang, especially those made with lower-skilled, labor-intensive manufacturing (or related agricultural harvesting and processing), are tainted with coercive labor.

On April 20, 2022, China formally ratified the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Forced Labor Convention and Abolition of Forced Labor Convention from 1930 and 1957 (Bloomberg, April 20). The 1957 convention explicitly forbids “mobilising and using labour for…economic development” and “as a means of racial…or religious discrimination” (ILO, 1957). As China’s own foreign ministry has stated that “[t]here is no ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang, only voluntary employment and free choice in the labor market,” Beijing clearly has no intention of  abandoning its crucial political goals in the region that are directly dependent on the continuation of coercive labor schemes (PRC Foreign Ministry, May 19, 2021).

While Xinjiang’s labor transfers directly violate these prohibitions, the region’s consolidation of its coercive labor mechanisms during 2016 to 2020, together with a focus on monitoring and surveillance, will make it easier to pretend that ILO standards are met. Put differently, Beijing’s ratification of these conventions is likely a calculated strategy to allay criticism. Actual policies in Xinjiang indicate that intrusive and coercive labor placement and retention mechanisms are being intensified rather than dismantled.

The extent of state-sponsored forced labor in Xinjiang requires a comprehensive political response. The rebuttable presumption defined in the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) enacted by the United States, which stipulates that all goods produced in Xinjiang are potentially tainted by forced labor unless proven otherwise, is one of the only effective solutions to the region’s coercive labor problem. As a compromise, governments could limit the rebuttable presumption to products made with low-skilled, labor-intensive manufacturing, especially in sectors such as cotton, textile and garment production, the processing of tomatoes, of polysilicon, and related fields. However, Xinjiang’s pursuit of “high-quality development” and intensified vocational training means that sectors requiring higher skills levels will in the future increasingly be at risk of coercive labor as well.

Dr. Adrian Zenz is Senior Fellow and Director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Washington, D.C. (non-resident). His research focus is on China’s ethnic policy, public recruitment and coercive poverty alleviation and labor programs in Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing’s internment campaign in Xinjiang, and China’s domestic security budgets. Dr. Zenz is the author of Tibetanness under Threat, co-editor of Mapping Amdo: Dynamics of Change. He has published multiple peer-reviewed papers in leading academic China journals and has served as peer reviewer for over ten journals. He has played a leading role in the analysis of leaked Chinese government documents, to include the “China Cables,” the “Karakax List,” the “Xinjiang Papers,” and the “Xinjiang Police Files.” Dr. Zenz is an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, and a frequent contributor to the international media. He is not affiliated with the Jamestown Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This piece exceeds the standard length for China Brief articles, but is being published due to its timeliness and reader interest.


[1] See also Laura T. Murphy and Nyrola Elimä, “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains.” Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Hallam University Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice,” May 2021, https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/in-broad-daylight; Ana Swanson and Chris Buckley, “Chinese Solar Companies Tied to Use of Forced Labor,” New York Times, January 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/business/economy/china-solar-companies-forced-labor-xinjiang.html ; “China’s ‘tainted’ cotton”, BBC, December 14, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/nz0g306v8c/china-tainted-cotton.

On coercive transfers of Uyghurs to other provinces, see Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, et al, “Uyghurs for Sale,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, March 1, 2020, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/uyghurs-sale. On the ongoing use of forced labor in the processing of cotton, see “Laundering Cotton: Laundering Cotton: How Xinjiang Cotton is Obscured in International Supply Chains,” Sheffield Halam University, April 4, 2022, https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/laundered-cotton

[2] Quotes in sections from- Adrian Zenz, “The Xinjiang Papers: An Introduction” The Uyghur Tribunal, November 27, 2021, p. 20, 39, 40; document no.2, p.65

[3] This system is also being implemented in other regions in China through Targeted Poverty Alleviation (精准扶贫, jingzhun fupin). However, implementation in these regions is typically not conducted with the same intensity and level of coercion compared to Xinjiang.

[4] Although transfers are measured in “person-times” (人次, ren ci), one person may be transferred more than once in a given year, there are no indications that the ratio of persons to transfers has substantially changed. In fact, institutionalization of stable employment through such transfers would indicate a reduction in the frequency of annual transfers for some people (typically for seasonal work). This means that it is safe to assume a net increase of approximately 300,000 persons in the labor transfer system between 2019 and 2021.