China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other minorities into hard, manual labour in the vast cotton fields of its western region of Xinjiang, according to new research seen by the BBC.
Based on newly discovered online documents, it provides the first clear picture of the potential scale of forced labour in the picking of a crop that accounts for a fifth of the world’s cotton supply and is used widely throughout the global fashion industry.
Alongside a large network of detention camps, in which more than a million are thought to have been detained, allegations that minority groups are being coerced into working in textile factories have already been well documented.
The Chinese government denies the claims, insisting that the camps are “vocational training schools” and the factories are part of a massive, and voluntary, “poverty alleviation” scheme.
But the new evidence suggests that upwards of half a million minority workers a year are also being marshalled into seasonal cotton picking under conditions that again appear to raise a high risk of coercion.
“In my view the implications are truly on a historical scale,” Dr Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington who uncovered the documents, told the BBC.
“For the first time we not only have evidence of Uighur forced labour in manufacturing, in garment making, it’s directly about the picking of cotton, and I think that is such a game-changer.
“Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”
"For the regions of Hotan and Aksu alone, the number of cotton pickers moved to the military corps reached 150,000 and 60,000 each"
The documents, a mixture of online government policy papers and state news reports, show that in 2018 the prefectures of Aksu and Hotan sent 210,000 workers “via labour transfer” to pick cotton for a Chinese paramilitary organisation, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.
"Adopt methods to mobilise and organise"
Others speak of pickers being “mobilised and organised” and transported to fields hundreds of kilometres away.
"142,700... transferring all those who should be transferred.”
This year, Aksu identified a need for 142,700 workers for its own fields, which was largely met through the principle of “transferring all those who should be transferred.”
References to “guiding” the pickers to “consciously resist illegal religious activities” indicate that the policies are designed predominantly for Xinjiang’s Uighurs and other traditionally Muslim groups.
Government officials first sign “contracts of intent” with the cotton farms, determining the “number of workers hired, the location, the accommodation and wages,” after which pickers are then mobilised to “enthusiastically sign up”.
There are plenty of clues that this enthusiasm is less than whole-hearted. One report describes a village where people were “unwilling to work in agriculture”.
Officials had to visit again to perform “thought education work”. Eventually 20 were sent off, with a plan in place to “export” 60 more.