Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 3 March 2021


Chinese labour schemes aimed to cut Uighur population density – report

Accidental publication adds to growing body of evidence of Beijing’s efforts to persecute minority

A picture taken in June 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, in China’s Xinjiang region
A picture taken in June 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, in China’s Xinjiang region Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Wed 3 Mar 2021 10.00 GMT

Chinese labour programmes in Xinjiang are designed at least partly to reduce the population density of the Uighur ethnic minority group, according to a study accidentally published online.

The Chinese report, by academics of Nankai University, was taken down in mid-2020, but a copy was archived by the academic Dr Adrian Zenz. It adds to the growing body of evidence of Beijing’s concerted efforts to persecute Uighurs in what human rights experts and some governments have labelled cultural genocide.

The Chinese government denies accusations of forced labour and labour transfers in Xinjiang, saying work programmes are a voluntary element of its poverty alleviation goals. However, the Nankai report said the labour transfers were also a long-term measure that “not only reduces Uighur population density in Xinjiang, but also is an important method to influence, melt, and assimilate Uighur minorities.”

“Let them gradually change their thinking and understanding, and transform their values and outlook on life through a change of environment and through labour work,” the report said.

It recommended the government expand the programmes to eastern and central regions of China to meet labour demands.

The report emphasised that programmes were “voluntary” but also provided contradictory details, such as worker export targets and the need for security guards in the labour sourcing teams.


Who are the Uighurs?


The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group, primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. They have been subject to religious and ethnic persecution by Chinese authorities, with rights groups claiming that in recent years more than 1 million people have been held in detention camps. 

Having initially denied the existence of the camps, China has described them as “vocational education centres” in the face of mounting evidence in the form of government documents, satellite imagery and testimonies from escaped detainees. Satellite images have also suggested that more than two dozen Islamic religious sites have been partly or completely demolished since 2016.

In July 2019 China claimed that most of the people sent to the mass detention centres have “returned to society”, but this has been disputed by relatives of those detained. Around 1-1.5m Uighur are estimated to live overseas as a diaspora, many of whom have campaigned against the treatment of their families. China repeated these claims in December 2019, but offering no evidence of their release.  

In July 2020, China's UK ambassador denied abuse of Uighurs, despite the emergence of drone footage of hundreds of blindfolded and shackled men.

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It also appeared to suggest the authorities have gone too far in their crackdown, and that the demonisation of Uighurs had resulted in some local and provincial authorities refusing to accept workers from Xinjiang on “security grounds”. This situation was a “serious obstacle” to the country’s goals, it said.

Uighurs who had “participated in riots” were a minority, and all have been admitted to education and training centres – what Chinese authorities call the network of detention camps. “The entire Uighur population should not be assumed to be rioters,” it said. “This is very detrimental to the long term stability of Xinjiang.”

A review of the Nankai report and other supporting materials by Zenz included legal analysis by the former senior adviser to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Erin Farrell Rosenberg, who found “credible grounds to conclude” that Xinjiang’s labour transfer programme met the criteria of two crimes against humanity.

“Specifically, there is substantial evidence that the Chinese government is carrying out a widespread and systematic attack against the Uighur civilian population pursuant to a government policy,” said Rosenberg. “Further, there are credible grounds to conclude that, as a part of the attack, the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer and persecution are occurring.”

Zenz and Rosenberg both expressed concern that the Uighur transfer programmes had been looked at primarily through the lens of forced labour “and not in regards to the forced displacement of Uighurs from their homes and community”, wrote Rosenberg.

“While there may be overlap depending on the factual circumstances at issue, the protected interests at stake that have led to the prohibitions on enslavement and forcible transfer are distinct and each merit accountability for the perpetrators and a robust international response in their own right.”

In a statement to the BBC, the Chinese government said the report “reflects only the author’s personal view and much of its contents are not in line with the facts”.

China maintains blanket denials of atrocities committed in Xinjiang, including accusations of the arbitrary detention of an estimated 1 million people, forced sterilisation and assault of women, suppression or destruction of cultural and religious traditions and sites, and intense surveillance. It says the detention camps – which it once denied existed – are vocational training centres used to address religious extremism. In recent weeks officials have also publicly targeted individual Uighur women who have spoken about their experiences.

China said on Tuesday it was discussing a visit to its Xinjiang region by the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, but that she should not set out with the aim of condemning its policies.

Bachelet said on Friday that reports about arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, sexual violence and forced labour in Xinjiang necessitated a thorough and independent assessment of the situation.

“The door to Xinjiang is always open, and we welcome the high commissioner to visit Xinjiang. Communication is kept up between the two sides, but the aim of the visit is to provide exchanges and cooperation rather than … so-called investigation based on ‘guilty before proven’,” China’s delegate, Jiang Duan, told the UN human rights council.

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