Free Societies

Human Rights Foundation Aims to Prevent China from Profiting from Forced Uyghur Labor

Hotan China

Erin Baumgartner | Marketing and Communications Intern

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as the Uyghur Region) in northwest China is home to many ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Uyghurs: a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that is predominantly Muslim. Although it was designated an autonomous region in 1955—a symbolic gesture of ethnic unity, despite long-term intentions for assimilation—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has slowly tightened its control over the Uyghur Region, escalating to what many foreign democracies have denounced as a genocide of the Uyghur people.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a non-profit organization and Atlas Network partner, is dedicated to promoting and defending liberal democracy. HRF has acted as a watchdog for human rights abuses committed by the CCP and aims to spread international awareness and provide recommendations for how foreign governments can take action against these abuses. In 2021, HRF published a report titled 100 Years of Suppression which evaluated the CCP’s suppression tactics in the Uyghur Region, as well as in Tibet and Hong Kong.

The report provides background that as early as the 1960s, the Chinese government has justified repression of ethnic minorities as a proported necessary means of dealing with the “three evils” (terrorism, extremism, and separationism), despite a lack of any evidence suggesting the presence of these “evils.” When Xi Jinping became president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013, violent suppression of ethnic minorities intensified. One example was the “Strike Hard” campaign, launched in 2014 and aimed at removing any religious themes in daily life that might inspire “religious extremism” in the Uyghur Region. In practice, the campaign legally justified religious persecution, with outcomes ranging from denying public services to men with long beards or women with hijabs, to the widespread destroying and damaging of religious sites (including 65% of the region’s mosques).

The highest escalation of these “anti-terrorist” activities, and the resulting human rights abuses perpetrated by the CCP, have culminated and been recognized as a genocide, and it is estimated that to date over a million Uyghur people have been subjects of internment camps. Although the camps are marketed by the CCP as “vocational facilities,” they operate more like jails: the dozen camps that have been verified by satellite imagery are secured by high concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard towers.

HRF’s report cites that in recent years the Chinese government has started inviting select journalists to the region on strictly monitored tours, in an effort to promote the narrative of happy Uyghur people attending the “schools.” But reports from these tours depict an unsettling reality of re-education centers where adults are forced to learn Mandarin, subjected to political indoctrination, kept from practicing their religion, and have no idea when they will be allowed to leave. Accounts from former detainees also reveal that women in the camps are frequently victims of forced IUD insertions, abortions, and sexual violence.

Forced labor programs run parallel to the internment camps, and individuals who have finished their time in the re-education centers are often funneled into forced labor. HRF describes this pipeline as the commodification of the Uyghur people. The Chinese government markets this forced labor as a “poverty alleviation effort” that provides job opportunities for the poor. But China’s economy is the only benefactor. Manufacturing, mining, and farming industries in the Uyghur Region have increased in recent years, and products produced in the region range from polysilicon (used for solar supply chain) to cotton to tomato products.

The Human Rights Foundation is a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, which is made up of civil society organizations and trade unions. As a result of the coalition’s efforts, in December 2021 the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was passed in the United States with overwhelming bipartisan support. The act aims to strengthen the required processes of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in an effort to prevent goods produced in part or in whole in the Uyghur Region from entering U.S. markets.

Following the act’s ratification, HRF submitted public comment to the Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force to contribute additional information and recommendations to ensure the Act’s robust and effective enforcement.

Among the information included in the public comment, a key challenge that it highlighted is the inability to conduct verified worker interviews in the Uyghur Region, due to the high risk that speaking freely poses to individuals and their families. As a result of the impossibility of conducting thorough audits, numerous audit firms have pulled out of the Uyghur Region altogether.

HRF’s statement provided a series of recommendations for the CBP, including that any goods produced in the Uyghur Region should be presumed to involve forced labor unless there is clear and convincing evidence otherwise. HRF also called for supply chain information to be made publicly available in order to enable cooperation with independent researchers and NGOs, and that the CBP should develop a swift enforcement system for imports from the region, including a default Withhold Release Order (automatic detention of goods when they are imported, until they can be verified) and thorough training of all port officials.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is one step on a long road. “While the act is a remarkable step toward ending Uyghur forced labor, it is now imperative that we urge other countries—specifically in the European Union and abroad—to introduce similar legislation, and to call on companies to apply a unified global standard across all markets,” said HRF Senior Strategy & Research Associate Jenny Wang. “The international community must no longer tolerate modern-day slavery.”