A father with his child in Xinjiang, China
A new report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur has found widespread evidence of state-sanctioned modern slavery in Tibet and Xinjiang, China, homeland of the Tibetans and Uyghurs.
According to the report, such “work is involuntary and workers are subject to excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restricted movements, threats, physical or sexual violence, and other inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The report is significant because, thus far, the U.N. has been mostly silent on what’s happening in China, under the increasingly nationalistic single-party rule led by strongman Xi Jinping. This is despite evidence, for years now, that the Chinese government has been detaining upwards of a million Uyghurs in forced labor camps. For example, the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has yet to release her long-awaited report on the situation. This report might be a sign that things are changing.
“The case against the Chinese government at the U.N. level continues to build,” said Omer Kanat executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “It should now be impossible for U.N. agencies and member states to ignore atrocities of this magnitude.”
Since 2017, the situation in the Uyghur homeland in eastern China has deteriorated significantly. What started out as a digitally enhanced police state morphed into what has been called the largest system of concentration camps since World War II, housing perhaps as many as 3 million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities. Mosques, Uyghur neighborhoods and shrines have been destroyed, and the use of their language is increasingly prohibited.
Meanwhile, in Tibet, a colonial style-boarding school system has been set up, forcing as many as 800,000 Tibetans away from their parents and into schools where they’re forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and forbidden from speaking Tibetan or from celebrating traditional Buddhist holidays. It’s reminiscent of tactics used in the U.S. and Canada to forcibly assimilate Native Americans.
“The Chinese authorities are using one of the most heinous tools of colonization to attack Tibetan identity,” said Lhadon Tethong, director of Tibet Action Institute, in a press statement. “China’s unprecedented campaign of forced sinicization in Tibet targets even the youngest children and demands urgent intervention.”
Sadly, because of China’s economic power, political action on modern slavery has been lagging, particularly at the international level. It does not help that China has severely restricted access to both Tibet and the entire Uyghur homeland — a situation made worse by China’s strict zero-COVID border control policies — making it hard for journalists and civil society to really gauge the extent of what is happening.
Unfortunately, there’s another group that’s been even slower to act than the U.N. on modern slavery — multinational companies, many of which have supply chains that reach deep into China and, as numerous media, civil society and labor investigations have shown over the past several years, dozens of these companies have been implicated in Uyghur forced labor, Tibetan environmental degradation or ongoing labor rights abuses.
“Forced labor programs have been weaponized [as] a tool of genocide by the Chinese Communist Party — and yet corporations around the world continue to turn a profit from atrocity,” said the president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, in a statement. “This report’s findings must be a wakeup call to those that have so far refused to take action on the proliferation of Uyghur forced labor made goods in global supply chains.”
China is the main trading partner for the majority of countries in the world, and it is the leading source of imports into the United States and much of Europe. Many of the goods are connected to Xinjiang and Tibet. A report from C4ADS identified high-risk commodities that were still being imported into the U.S. despite potential links to Uyghur forced labor.
Now, inaction will have a clear cost. The passage and coming into force of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in June of this year, the first law in the world that specifically targets the Chinese government’s use of forced labor, is already having an impact on the flow of goods from China to the U.S.
While cotton and garments have gotten the most attention, the C4ADS report also identified poly-silicon (used in solar manufacturing), pepper, tomatoes, beryllium, rayon, wind turbines and calcium carbide. Meanwhile Tibet is a key source of minerals used in technology supply chains — often mined on land stolen from Tibetans.
There’s a cost to inaction on modern slavery, primarily due to the recent coming into force of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act this past July. It was passed with bipartisan support partly as a response to the failure of brands to act independent. Already, this legislation has led to the U.S. blocking numerous shipments of solar photovoltaics — an industry that China dominates and has clear links to the Uyghur homeland. The U.S. is unlikely to hit its goals for solar installations this year, which will harm the country’s climate goals.
It is hard to have much sympathy for the solar industry when groups like the Solar Energy Industries Association have been warning members about the extent of Uyghur forced labor in solar supply chains since 2020. Nor for others who, soon, may also see their imports blocked. We’ve known about the human rights atrocities since 2008, when the first crackdown of protesters in Tibet took place, and news about the Uyghur camps first broke in 2018. The failure is of businesses to act promptly and live up to their promises, stated again and again in yearly corporate responsibility reports and due diligence statements, about their commitments to ethical sourcing.
There were exceptions. Patagonia made plans to exit the Uyghur region once it found out about the human rights abuses, and it now sources cotton from other regions. Had more businesses been like Patagonia, perhaps we wouldn’t be facing a solar shortage right after the passage of a critically important climate bill. But more importantly, perhaps the Chinese government would have felt actual pressure to change its repressive policies toward Tibetans and Uyghurs.
Image credit: simon sun via Unsplash
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.