Poverty in XinjiangMore than 40 different ethnic groups live in China’s northwest region known as Xinjiang. The largest of these groups are the Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslims. The two groups do not speak the same language or share similar traditions, creating a wide cultural divide. Socioeconomic disparities and the Chinese government’s exploitation of the Uyghur further exacerbate the divide between the two groups. Poverty in Xinjiang, China has contributed to the oppression of Uyghurs and given the Chinese government a justification to detain and exploit millions.

Poverty in Xinjiang, China

The poverty in Xinjiang, China is the highest of the Chinese provinces at approximately 6%. However, certain regions within Xinjiang face more poverty than others. Yutian County, for example, has a poverty rate of around 25%. Even so, the region has made great strides in poverty alleviation in recent years, lifting 2.3 million out of poverty. Xinjiang’s resource-rich areas have caught the attention of Han Chinese, driving migration and economic growth. Additionally, the government has promoted various industries, employment transfers and citizen relocation. This has the result of further driving down poverty rates.

Unfortunately, many Uyghurs are excluded from the benefits of reduced poverty. Employment discrimination prevents Uyghurs from getting jobs in these growing markets. As a result, a disproportionate amount of Han Chinese receive better jobs. This furthers the economic disparity between the two groups. On top of this, the rising number of Han Chinese in the region has made the native Uyghurs feel distant from one another and worry their culture is disappearing.


The unhappiness caused by exclusion and poverty in Xinjiang, China pushes many Uyghurs closer to Islam. They increasingly support Xinjiang’s independence from China to create East Turkestan. Some even commit acts of violence. Despite the fact that Chinese policy and Uyghur poverty cause much violence, many Han Chinese believe it results from Islamic extremism. This leads to widespread fear and distrust among the population, further driving exclusion.

The Chinese government agrees with the Han Chinese, claiming that Islamic extremists cause violence. It specifically argued that it must “reeducate” the Uyghur Muslims. Since 2014, China has been suppressing the Uyghurs’ culture, language and religion in the name of national security. All the while, it claims that Uyghurs have full freedom. Police stations and cameras now line the streets of Xinjiang. Some public areas are full of razor wire, and the police stop people on the street to see their ID. Furthermore, the government has taken passports from many Uyghurs, preventing them from leaving the region.


Since 2017, the government has reportedly detained approximately a million Uyghurs in reeducation camps. Detainees’ only crime is their Muslim identity. Hundreds of camps exist today, 39 of which tripled in size from 2017 to 2018. Construction funds for these camps have increased by nearly $3 billion in recent years.

Although China’s secrecy makes information on the exact conditions in the camps difficult to discern, previous detainees have spoken out. They speak of a prison-like environment, sexual assault and forced abortions or contraceptives, extreme surveillance, torture and more. Some say they witnessed people taking their own lives.

On top of this, many Uyghurs in these camps must work in factories across China, often against their will. The products they produce are so widespread that approximately 83 international companies use this forced labor in their supply chain. In fact, one in five cotton products around the world rely on this forced labor. These products are therefore the result of severe human rights violations.

Ongoing Efforts to Reduce Violence and Poverty in Xinjiang, China

Many U.S. companies benefit from this system, making it crucial that legislation prevent forced labor and condemn China’s actions. Most recently, the U.S. Senate passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (S3744) in late June 2020. This act placed sanctions on many of the officials who complicit in the detainment and abuse of Uyghurs.

Additionally, representatives introduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in March of 2020, but it has not passed into law yet. Many Uyghurs are also stuck in U.S. immigration limbo, making it far more difficult for them to seek refuge. Both of these proposals are crucial in helping significantly reduce the demand for forced labor. Both also urge the Chinese government to stop committing human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.

NGOs Step in to Help

Many NGOs have been working to bring attention to this ongoing crisis and help the Uyghurs. Despite the difficulties present in aiding Uyghurs directly, a coalition of more than 250 organizations made the End Uyghur Forced Labor campaign. The coalition demands that companies eliminate any Uyghur forced labor in their production lines within a year. Companies that agree must sign a pledge, and the coalition will apply pressure to all companies that have not yet signed.

The coalition has also organized advocacy days, written petitions, and called on Congress for a ban on cotton from the Uyghur region. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact effects these campaigns have had, this additional pressure on companies will help end Uyghur forced labor. In turn, the group will reduce demand for Uyghur labor and prevent their exploitation.

Poverty in Xinjiang, China has reduced significantly and will likely continue to decrease in the upcoming years. But the Uyghurs do not benefit from this progress. Numerous countries have applied pressure on the Chinese government, and it is crucial that the U.S. does the same. Many NGOs have worked together to raise awareness and pressure governments and companies to eliminate Uyghur forced labor. In spite of the many challenges that the Uyghurs face, there is still hope for conditions to improve with the support of the global community.

Elizabeth Lee
Photo: Flickr

Uighur Forced LaborSourcing from Uighur forced labor is so prevalent in the global fashion industry. Human rights groups have estimated that as many as one in five cotton products sold worldwide is outcomes of the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. More than 30% of U.S. apparel imports from China. This means your clothes probably come from the region. Thus, incarcerated people may have partially produced them. Uighur forced labor links to supply chains around the world. Governments and companies bear a social responsibility to uphold international labor standards.

Difficulties with Regulation

Uighur forced labor is difficult to regulate. This is because brands may unwittingly be promoting the conditions of incarceration and cultural erasure. Brands may indirectly benefit from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs. Cotton is routed to neighboring countries before arriving in the United States. This obscures the supply chain’s traceability. Leonie Barrie is an apparel analyst at the international analytics firm GlobalData. He speaks to this point of why eliminating Xinjiang cotton proves difficult and says, “we’re talking about multiple touchpoints along the supply chain.”

Information inconsistencies further complicate sourcing. False claims hinder activists who push for change from accurately linking brands to the factories. For instance, with Adidas, “one factory in Xinjiang has a giant billboard of Adidas on their premises,” explained Danielle Cave, a deputy director at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Yet, Adidas denied having ties to the manufacturer. This obscurity with corroborating the statements of brands and manufacturers is a long-existing problem. Auditors and activists who combat issues of labor exploitation in the fashion industry have to face this issue.

Still, brands themselves prove reluctant to enact the full-scale changes necessary for living up to their ethical manufacturing commitments. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report naming 83 brands that had “directly or indirectly benefited from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs as recently as 2019.” The list included popular American brands such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, L.L. Bean, Zara and Uniqlo. When these companies responded to the claims, few explicitly confirmed whether they used Xinjiang cotton. Instead, they redirected towards their participation in organizations that promote ethical fashion.

Redirecting the Conversation

An example of brands redirecting the conversation is Nike’s reaction to The Washington Post’s story. The story was on a supplier Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co, and their apparent use of forced Uighur labor in a central factory for Nike products. A spokesperson for Nike did not deny the claims. They claimed the company was “committed to upholding international labor standards globally.” They did not give action steps on following up on that commitment. Furthermore, even companies with rigorous corporate social-responsibility guidelines may employ Uighur forced labor, whether they are aware of it or not.

Where Change is Coming From

Change, however, is coming from a different direction: lawmakers and the activists behind them. On July 9, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned regional officials and a security agency for detaining over one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in these forced labor camps. Prisoners could not practice Islam and underwent sterilization practices. Two new laws are also working through the United States Congress and the European Parliament. They prevent the import of goods made from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.

Such legislation could set a precedent for future laws that weed out forced labor from supply chains. However, simply preventing these imports from reaching the U.S. is only a temporary solution. To prevent Uighur forced labor from spreading to other markets, we must take a universal stance against exploitative practices and muddled supply chains.

– Christine Mui
Photo: Flickr