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Combatting Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang
Special Contribution
By Amy K. Lehr & Mariefaye Bechrakis
Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang
Concerns about widespread human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, including forced labor, in Xinjiang, China have escalated in recent years. The US has unilaterally imposed sanctions and seized imports, yet China has doubled down on its approach. This report explores a broad range of existing policy options for the US and its allies, while recognizing that China’s economic and political clout and capacity to retaliate necessitate new approaches that require further definition.

More than 1 million Uyghurs and individuals from other Muslim groups have been detained and “re-educated” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwest China because of government concerns about potential unrest. This is the largest detention of a religious group since World War II. These groups have been subjected to escalating human rights abuses, such as large-scale detention, cultural and religious repression, and forced sterilization. The repression began at least a decade ago but severely escalated in 2017. Forced labor forms an integral part of a broader government strategy of abuse and minority repression to maintain political stability and internal security in the region. This forced labor sometimes connects to global supply chain, usually indirectly.

Like-minded governments can deploy an array of policy tools to curb the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) human rights abuses in the region. Governments can affect the Chinese economy to some degree, as well as China’s status and influence in the world, which in turn will put increasing pressure on Beijing to alter its present policy in the XUAR. Shifting supply chains away from the region—a key point of focus in the United States—is an important part of the equation, but it will not be sufficient on its own to change China’s domestic policy.

The Chinese government and relevant Chinese companies must implement significant changes in the XUAR to bring it into even partial alignment with human rights standards. Much stronger alignment with such norms must be the end goal. Addressing forced labor may seem like low-hanging fruit, but even that requires progress on other issues. To feel confident that forced labor is no longer used in the region, external observers and auditors need much greater access and reduced levels of surveillance. Moreover, other crucial, longer-term objectives must include ending widespread detention, efforts to eradicate culture and religion, forced population control, and other abuses.

Forced labor is a key component in the government’s efforts to “re-educate” Muslim minorities by reforming their minds and breaking their cultural and religious ties. Re-education also includes long hours of Chinese language instruction and political indoctrination in detention facilities and even in factories, far from family members and friends. The government believes that labor in factories will make these groups more like the Han Chinese, the majority population in China, which in turn will increase their loyalty to the CCP and counteract the risk of terrorism.

The government has transferred hundreds of thousands of ex-detainees and poor minorities from their traditional work roles into manufacturing positions in an extremely repressive atmosphere where they have no ability to opt out. Most are sent to work within the XUAR, but at least 80,000 have been sent to factories in other regions of China as well. In 2018, a local source with first-hand knowledge of the situation, deemed credible by the Associated Press, estimated that more than 10,000 detainees were working in factories in his county in the XUAR. He told an Associated Press journalist that this would constitute 10 or 20 percent of his county’s total population.

The government of Kashgar, a city and prefecture in the XUAR, stated that in 2018, it would send 100,000 people who had gone through “vocational training” (often a euphemism for time in a detention center) to work in factories. That is 20 percent of the entire Uyghur population of Kashgar. Recent research shows that the government transferred hundreds of thousands of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities to work as cotton pickers in the XUAR after 2016 as part of its poverty alleviation program. This program sets strict quotas requiring government officials to transfer certain numbers of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups into wage jobs in a highly coercive atmosphere.

It is quite possible that the government’s goals vary across the region, and that it does not always meet its quotas. Nevertheless, the number of people potentially affected by forced labor is very significant.

The XUAR plays an important role in the early stages of global supply chains. It is a top producer of cotton and polysilicon (a critical component of solar panels) and a significant producer of cashmere, tomatoes, and other goods. Many of these products are incorporated early in the value chain and are not exported directly. Global companies are under growing public and political pressure to cut their ties to the region due to concerns about forced labor.

The XUAR produces approximately 20 percent of the world’s cotton. Almost all of this cotton is consumed inside China, where it is spun and mixed with imported cotton from other countries. China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of yarn, textiles, and apparel. It exports these products to intermediaries around the world, where they are woven into final products in countries ranging from Vietnam to Bangladesh to Honduras.

China’s internal market is also growing rapidly. It consumes 88 percent of its own apparel and textiles. Nevertheless, China’s total raw cotton, yarn, textile, and apparel exports form an important part of the global economy. In 2018, they constituted almost 10 percent of the value of total Chinese exports—$259 billion or 1.9 percent of GDP—and they comprise over 30 percent of the global export market for these goods. The sector employs millions across China.

The European Union, United Kingdom, and United States jointly receive enough apparel from China to potentially have some impact on its economy, and thus possibly its policies, through import restrictions, a consumer boycott, or concerted action by supply chain actors. Such a move would necessitate significant reconfiguring of global supply chains over time if enforced effectively.

Other sectors may present additional opportunities for leverage. In the XUAR, Chinese government programs that can be linked to forced labor seek to grow other sectors, including agricultural production, electronics and machinery, chemicals, medical equipment, and mining.

Direct exports are growing. Despite concerns over the past year regarding forced labor in the XUAR, exports to the United States and Europe grew significantly from 2019 to 2020.

These figures are not surprising. The Chinese government seeks to increase manufacturing in the region, through a mix of company subsidies and underpaid and coerced workers, to turn the area into an export hub of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Global supply chains are one pressure point to seek improved practices in the XUAR, and ensure that consumers are not unknowingly purchasing XUAR forced labor-linked products, but a broader suite of actions are needed to effect change in the region.

The United States has already aggressively and unilaterally employed a number of measures, including sanctions, export controls, and seizures of goods imported from Xinjiang, in an effort to influence the human rights situation in the XUAR. It has also focused on removing XUAR-linked products from global supply chains. These are important tools but not sufficient, and would be more effective if multilateral.

Political stability and security in the XUAR are top priorities for China, and the leadership believes this is best achieved through aggressive measures such as mass detention and forced labor. Convincing China’s leadership to change its approach will require multilateral, multidimensional, and sustained action.

Governments increasingly are imposing human rights requirements on companies as a condition of importing goods or conducting business within their jurisdictions. In rare instances, governments may ban the entry of goods produced with certain human rights abuses, while in other instances these laws require companies to disclose steps they took to identify and avoid abuses in their supply chains.

U.S. law provides a particularly powerful tool to address the risk of forced labor in supply chains. The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 allows the seizure of goods produced by forced labor anywhere in the supply chain. The Trump administration and Congress are both considering a presumption that certain products containing components from the XUAR are affected by forced labor, enabling their seizure without specific evidence of forced labor connected to that product. This might have economic effects in China. However, because China consumes so much of its own final products, and the European Union is in some instances a larger recipient of these goods, U.S. action will most likely not be sufficient on its own to effect change.

The United Kingdom has a similar law prohibiting imported goods produced with forced prison labor that may be applicable. Canada and Mexico are required under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to promulgate a similar law, but many countries do not have such laws to deploy. The Dutch government recently passed a law requiring companies that deliver goods to Dutch end users to have in place due diligence plans to identify and respond to child labor and certify to regulators that such measures are in place. Similar measures could be put in place for forced labor in other countries that would apply to XUAR-linked forced labor, implicitly or explicitly.

There is growing momentum in EU member states to hold multinational companies accountable for human rights violations in their supply chains, which may also provide leverage. France’s 2017 Duty of Vigilance law requires large French companies to identify and prevent human rights abuses in their supply chains, and the European Union as a whole is expected to pass similar legislation. Under these laws, companies might be found liable for failing to seek to identify and address XUAR-linked forced labor in their supply chains. The European Union and France could provide specific guidance regarding the steps that companies are expected to take regarding state-sponsored forced labor, including in the XUAR, that would become the expected standard for due diligence.

Companies of course can and should act on their own, according to their commitments under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Most large multinationals have strong written commitments to human rights, and particularly to ending forced labor. They must act on those and improve supply chain traceability so they can identify risks of XUAR-linked forced labor and act on those risks decisively. If governments and companies act collectively, the chance of success will increase dramatically.

Incentivizing Supply Chain Diversification

If import limitations are placed on Xinjiang-linked products, supply chains will have to be significantly reconfigured, which requires concerted action and time. The world produces enough cotton for the XUAR to theoretically be excluded from global supply chains, with all XUAR cotton remaining in China. However, blending of cotton from many countries at the yarn and textile levels of the supply chain in China makes it very challenging to exclude XUAR cotton at the moment. Governments have a number of tools at their disposal to speed up diversification that excludes XUAR-linked inputs, including:
◾Government procurement practices based on human rights and rigorously implemented;
◾Trade and tariff incentives to encourage new, vertically integrated hubs;
◾Investment assistance to encourage yarn and textile producers – both capital intensive industries - to move; and
◾Infrastructure assistance to provide steady electricity and adequate logistics to alternative countries.

The United States, European Union, and individual EU member states each have ample tools to deploy in this space and encourage better human rights and environmental practices. These can be used for apparel and textiles or other sectors. They could address XUAR forced labor while assisting with global sustainable development and even supporting manufacturing in their own jurisdictions.

For example, West Africa, Central America/Mexico, and Southeast Asia each present opportunities to develop new sourcing hubs free of XUAR inputs while providing decent work and stronger labor and environmental protections, but governments and companies need to coordinate to facilitate and speed such a process. And relevant sectors must develop much stronger traceability systems to ensure that supply chain diversification truly leads to cleaner inputs.


The United States has already deployed sanctions against various CCP officials and paramilitary divisions involved in human rights abuses in the XUAR. Many of these sanctions fall under the Global Magnitsky Act, which permits the targeted use of sanctions against human rights abusers. Research shows that multilateral sanctions are far more effective than unilateral efforts. Truly multilateral UN sanctions will not occur due to China’s position on the UN Security Council. However, the United Kingdom and Canada both have Global Magnitsky-type laws to deploy, and the European Union just passed a similar law, potentially enabling coordinated action.

On their own, sanctions, much less unilateral sanctions, are rarely an adequate agent for change. In the 1980s, the European Community, Commonwealth countries, and the U.S. Congress (overriding a veto from the Reagan administration) jointly imposed stringent economic sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa. In terms of trade, the effect of the sanctions was limited in the short term: South Africa developed extensive measures to circumvent sanctions, and exports actually rose in the years after the measures were imposed. But foreign direct investment (FDI) took a big hit because sanctions greatly increased the risks of investment. The sanctions highlighted the extent to which South Africa was sequestered from the international community. And over time, the joint position of the Western community squeezed South Africa’s trade while eroding its attractiveness as a host for FDI, proving to be so effective that in 1990, a newly released Nelson Mandela said: “To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process toward ending apartheid.” Whether aggressive, multilateral Xinjiang-related sanctions would have a meaningful effect on China’s actions in the XUAR is unclear, given China’s greater economic importance and its ongoing efforts to become less economically dependent on the West. But is clear that even in the case of South Africa, collective efforts were necessary and took years to achieve fruition.


China cares about its reputation. Criticism counts.

Governments should raise the issue of human rights in the XUAR in every high-level engagement with China. They should coordinate, taking advantage of safety in numbers, which limits China’s ability to retaliate.

For example, although President Reagan did not place human rights at the core of foreign relations in the way that President Carter had done before him, his inclusion of the topic as a pillar in every high-level engagement between the United States and USSR allowed him to make significant headway on human rights issues. He linked human rights improvements with building trust in the U.S.-Soviet relationship.

Establishing human rights as the linchpin to bilateral relations produced an important shift in Soviet attitudes. The sustained effort to link human rights to U.S.-Soviet relations caused the Soviets to realize that normalization would not arise unless it addressed “the full range of issues,” including human rights. Similarly, human rights in the XUAR should be a part of all high-level U.S. engagements with China, including trade negotiations. Other governments, which may be more susceptible to retaliation, should identify mechanisms to speak in a coordinated fashion, and the U.S. and like-minded countries should pre-agree on ways to mitigate any retaliation that nevertheless occurs.

China has shown itself adept at gaining the support of Muslim-majority countries and other emerging economies for its actions in the XUAR. To recreate U.S. leverage in these countries and obtain their diplomatic support, the United States will need to:
1.Reestablish its moral leadership by taking concrete steps to address human rights at home and abroad (e.g., by creating a plan to address disproportionate policing impacts on minorities in the United States and applying human rights standards and laws to allies and foes alike in areas such as weapons sales);
2.Strongly commit to multilateral institutions (e.g., by rejoining the UN Human Rights Council); and
3.Significantly increase long-term development and investment aid, founded on support for sustainable development, to make the United States a desirable long-term partner in these countries.

Increasing Awareness in Emerging Economies

Governments concerned about the situation in the XUAR can also deploy a bottom-up strategy. They can provide financial assistance to the media and civil society in key emerging economies to encourage them to focus on abuses in the XUAR and prompt public pressure for their leaders to change their positions. Public awareness regarding what is happening in the XUAR can also serve as an antidote to other governments copying China’s approach.

The United Nations

The United Nations should serve as an arbiter of facts when mass human rights violations occur, which in turn can help spur collective action. The UN response to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang has been limited, a position enabled by the Trump administration’s skepticism of multilateral institutions, including its decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. Beijing has capitalized on the United States’ absence to greatly extend its clout in the international body. China increased its funding to the United Nations and secured growing numbers of top positions there, even as the Trump administration sought to diminish U.S. contributions to the institution. In October 2020, Beijing won a seat on the Human Rights Council, where it will continue to drive its agenda of non-interference, arguing that the United Nations should not criticize countries for their human rights abuses—a position that would fundamentally undermine the UN human rights system.

The United Nations’ top leadership has been relatively reticent to denounce China’s abuses in the region, but the organization has not been entirely silent. Its independent special rapporteurs and other experts have engaged on the topic. In 2019, a panel of UN experts issued a “devastating” assessment of how China’s counterterrorism law was being used to justify gross violations of basic rights in Xinjiang.

UN member states have been trying to expand the focus on the XUAR. In October 2020, Germany led 39 countries, including the United States, in urging China to respect the rights of its Uyghur minority. It was a move that surprised and drew the ire of Beijing. A similar text delivered by the United Kingdom in 2019 won just 22 votes, signaling that there is growing concern about the crisis, at least among Western democracies.

The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has asked for but been unable to obtain free access to the region. Until such a visit is possible, her office could develop a public report analyzing the situation in the XUAR based on interviews with refugees and other sources, as the office has done for other human rights crises when meaningful access was denied. Such analysis by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, as well as continued reporting by UN experts, is important to establish a common, incontrovertible, globally accepted set of facts about the situation.

The Group of 7 (G7)

Publicly, the G7 has done little with regard to the XUAR. While it expressed “grave concern” about the situation in Hong Kong in June 2020, it has issued no corresponding statement about Xinjiang, apart from a brief line in its Foreign Ministers Communique in 2019 voicing “concern about the situation in Xinjiang, the existence of a large scale network of internment camps” and “the lack of fundamental rights and freedoms.” The United States and other G7 governments should ensure that human rights in China are on the G7’s agenda regularly. Additional G7 public statements of concern would provide evidence of the potential for concerted action.


Addressing forced labor in the XUAR, and related abuses, will require ongoing, broad-based efforts. Collective effort will also help diminish the risk of retaliation from Beijing. A spectrum of tools must be deployed by like-minded governments in a synchronized fashion, potentially including: sanctions; import limitations and due diligence requirements; incentives for supply chain diversification; consistent and high-level diplomacy; support for increased public awareness in emerging economies; UN reporting and pressure; and attention from the G7. At the same time, some of these tools may prove less effective when deployed vis-à-vis China because of its economic importance and diplomatic heft. Governments should consider whether new tools, coalitions, and strategies are also needed.

Improvements in the XUAR are likely to materialize slowly, so concerted and ongoing actions by like-minded countries are vital. Moreover, collective actions and statements will help diminish the risk of significant reprisals against individual countries. U.S. leadership and engagement on the issue is critical, with the caveat that action on human rights in China must not appear to be instrumentalized as a tool in great power competition. The United States must consistently voice its concerns about human rights, whether allies or competitors are involved, to restore credibility. Elevating the voices of other nations and consistently supporting them as they lead on this issue will help clarify that abuses in the XUAR are of concern to numerous actors.

Dismantling the apartheid system took many years of multilateral effort. Given the great importance of China on the world stage and in the global economy, positive change in the XUAR is likely to be hard-fought. Governments that care about human rights and do not want the XUAR to become a precedent that is imitated by other nations must prepare for concerted action over the coming years.

The above story was written by By Amy K. Lehr and Mariefaye Bechrakis.

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