In China, Almost Half a Million Souls Are Being Forced to Pick Cotton

December 15, 2020

BBC reporters recently traveled to what is now one of the most secretive places on earth -- the Xinjiang region of China. As the film crew tried to capture what the Chinese government insists are "vocational training centers," Chinese authorities prevented them from recording, intensely questioned them, and proceeded to trail them closely. If these facilities are truly benign, why make such an effort to hide them?

Because they are lying. Chinese authorities know that the massive new compounds with high walls and barbed wire scattered throughout Xinjiang are not a poverty alleviation program. Rather, they are part of a well-documented and comprehensive campaign to arbitrarily detain Uyghur Muslims en masse and eradicate their cultural practices and religious beliefs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been vocal in his criticism of this policy, calling it the "stain of the century."

Now, the use of forced labor from these Uyghur detainees allows Beijing to profit from these atrocities. A new report from researcher Adrien Zenz used online government policy papers and Chinese state news stories to discover that the use of Uyghur labor to hand-pick cotton for government entities is now a widespread practice in Xinjiang. The Uyghur-majority districts of Aksu and Hotan alone sent 210,000 workers "via labor transfer" to pick cotton for a Chinese paramilitary group.

Zenz told the BBC, "We have evidence of a massive forced labor scheme involving hundreds of thousands, upward of half a million, ethnic minorities" known to be put to work picking cotton. "In terms of global supply chains, now that's a game changer."

The enormity of the scale makes this a truly global issue. It is estimated that 20 percent of the world's cotton is grown in Xinjiang. American consumers can expect items in their closet with a "Made in China" label may be tainted by Uyghur forced labor.

To its credit, Congress has sought to address the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210) recently passed with strong bipartisan support in the House and is waiting for a vote in the Senate. This bill would compel companies to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that any goods produced in Xinjiang and imported to the U.S. are not made using forced labor, either in whole or in part.

New evidence about the use of forced labor in Xinjiang's cotton industry proves the need for this bill to become law now more than ever. Unfortunately, some companies are perfectly happy to make a profit off the backs of oppressed Uyghur laborers. Companies such as Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola recently made waves by lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur whose sister is thought to be detained in a "re-education" camp, lamented the companies' decision to oppose the bill, saying, "Choosing to fight against legislative efforts to address the atrocities covered in this report is an absolutely despicable thing to do and can be considered direct complicity."

Longtime human rights champion Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) echoed this disappointment on a recent episode of "Washington Watch," when he said, "You know, one of the greatest disappointments I've had in 40 years of promoting human rights and humanitarianism in Congress is that the profit motive... trump[s] human rights."

American companies should be wary of assisting the Chinese government's brutal suppression and abuse of the Uyghur Muslim minority -- most American consumers already are. Efforts like the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act protect U.S. citizens from unknowingly funding China's misdeeds. Shoppers should not have to fear that their purchases might contribute to gross human rights violations in China. As the evidence of China's forced labor practices keep growing, the Senate should pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act without delay. The cost of our hesitancy is high as we wait.