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.’”
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.