What the Evidence Says About Uyghur Forced Labor in China


It isn’t fading down if the outrage over Uyghur forced labor in China doesn’t seem to be.

If anything, Adrian Zenz, a senior scholar in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said that data suggests that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s coercion of oppressed ethnic minorities is becoming more intense. According to Zenz, his most recent study—the first of its type to be printed in a peer-reviewed academic journal—shows that Beijing is “doubling down” on its campaign of religious and cultural repression against Turkic Muslims.

He referred to state-sponsored initiatives to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into work placements, sometimes outside their homeland, in the name of so-called “poverty alleviation.” “Basically from new internal state documents, we can see how labor transfers, including picking cotton, became especially coercive in 2019, even more so than in 2017,” he said.

According to Zenz, the government created lists of “lazy people…and other people with insufficient inner motivation,” some of whom were as elderly as 77, who had to pick cotton or else face “repeated thought education” until “obvious results” were attained. He said that there would be “severe” consequences if they weren’t provided.

According to Zenz, labor transfers have continued until at least 2022 and are still “strongly emphasized” in Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plan for 2021–25. These labor transfers are for agricultural harvesting activities like cotton picking.

“It’s very much an ongoing phenomenon,” he said.

The Communist Party in power in China has continued to vehemently deny that forced Uyghur labor is going place. It claims that the demand for manual pickers has significantly diminished as a result of the widespread automation of cotton production.

Not quite, Zenz said. According to state media accounts from 2022, the highly sought-after long-staple cotton cultivated in southern Xinjiang cannot be gathered by machines because it needs a softer touch.

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