Foreign Policy: How Beijing Forces Uyghurs to Pick Cotton

How Beijing Forces Uyghurs to Pick Cotton
Coercive labor is getting less visible, but more intense.

By Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.

Beijing has repeatedly claimed that there is “no forced labor” in Xinjiang. But now, as the European Union debates a ban on products made with forced labor, the evidence has just gotten stronger.

My new research on Xinjiang’s cotton production—the first such research published in a peer-reviewed academic journal—shows that coercive labor transfers for seasonal agricultural work such as cotton picking have continued through at least 2022 and remain part of Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plan for 2021-25. Economic incentives for this practice persist despite partial mechanization: State media reports from 2022 confirm that the premium-grade long staple cotton grown in southern Xinjiang still cannot be harvested by machines.

Labor transfers subject Uyghurs to state-assigned work placements. They often separate them from their families and communities, subjecting them to intensive surveillance, long work hours, and mandatory political indoctrination and Chinese language classes in the evenings.


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