Study: China Using ‘Poverty Alleviation’ Apps to Force Half a Million Uyghurs to Pick Cotton

This photo taken on September 20, 2015 shows Chinese farmers picking cotton in the fields
STR/AFP via Getty Images

A study published Monday by researcher Dr. Adrian Zenz revealed that the Communist Party of China has forced over half a million mostly ethnic minority residents of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, into the arduous cotton picking industry as part of a supposed “poverty alleviation” program.

In the study, published by the Center for Global Policy, Zenz details the use of smartphone “poverty alleviation” applications to harvest detailed information on millions of people in Xinjiang, later used to force many of these individuals to work in cotton fields. Victims of the program, mostly members of the ethnic Uyghur minority that predominates in Xinjiang, receive extremely small salaries – less than minimum wage – and are also subject to a communist indoctrination program that teaches them to believe the phrase, “I want to work.”

Xinjiang is home to over a thousand concentration camps, where an estimated 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim ethnic minority people are subject to indoctrination, torture, forced sterilization, and slavery. The human rights abuses detailed in Zenz’s work are separate from the concentration camps – a distinct program to boost cotton production in the region by forcing those not subject to concentration camps to work.

The abuses permeate every aspect of China’s cotton industry, Zenz argues, as the vast majority of cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang. “All supply chains that involve Xinjiang cotton as a raw material” are implicated, he noted.

According to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, a group of over 200 global organizations against Chinese slave labor, Xinjiang is responsible for about a fifth of all cotton produced worldwide, and about 84 percent of Chinese cotton.

“The evidence shows that in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme,” Zenz’s report noted. “Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand.”

Citing the Xinhua news agency, an official arm of the Chinese government, Zenz noted that the Communist Party deployed hundreds of thousands of Party “cadres” to villages in Xinjiang to “help the masses out of poverty and misery” by “organizing” farmers. To help with “organization,” the cadres reportedly used a “precise poverty alleviation smartphone app” to build extensive profiles of individuals in the villages where they worked, used to monitor and control them.

“A precise poverty elimination smartphone app … helps government workers collect data on Uyghur households and feed that information into a large database,” the study noted.

“A key goal is to keep minorities occupied and surveilled,” according to the study. “Factory workers who work and live on secure compounds with dormitories live in environments that are more easily controlled by the state than pastoralists or farmers. Placing minorities into full-time wage labor has become a cornerstone of the state’s coercive social re-engineering project.”

In addition to being forced to pick cotton – which the study described as “grueling” – for less than minimum wage, victims of the program face severe indoctrination programs to erase their “backwards” refusal to wish to participate. The study noted that the Communist Party faced particular resistance from educated Uyghurs who had careers and no need to learn how to pick cotton for a living. It handled this by teaching them to believe, “I want to work.” The victims of the program were reportedly subject to “the singing of ‘red songs,’ learning to be grateful to the Chinese Communist Party, education in Chinese language [Mandarin], obeying the law, and so on.”

“Training settings for targeted groups of rural surplus laborers became highly militarized, increasingly securitized, and in several ways not dissimilar to the vocational internment camps,” the study noted.

“Vocational camp” is the official Party term for its Uyghur concentration camps. Beijing claims the camps are training centers to help underprivileged Uyghurs learn a trade.

“Overall, it is safe to state that Xinjiang’s cotton production depends on a coercive labor transfer mechanism that involves well over half a million ethnic minorities,” the study concluded, urging the American government and other state entities to disassociate from the Xinjiang cotton industry.

“The U.S. government should put a Withhold Release Order on any product that contains cotton from any part of Xinjiang,” the study concluded.

A “Withhold Release Order,” which essentially bans items of a certain category unless the importer can prove an exception, is already in place in the United States for some cotton products from Xinjiang – essentially placing the burden of proof on importing companies to prove the items were made without slave labor or forced employment. The order does not, however, affect all Xinjiang cotton products.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the report on Tuesday during its daily briefing. Spokesman Wang Wenbin personally attacked Zenz as a “far-right member of the U.S. administration” and a tool of unspecified “U.S. intelligence agencies.” Zenz is a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an independent non-profit, and an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which includes some members of the U.S. government, but is himself not publicly a member of the Trump administration.

Wang went on to claim that Zenz, who has extensively researched abuses against Uyghur people in Xinjiang, has published “nothing but lies” and uses “tricks” to deceive the world, without specifying any coherent examples.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.