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In a remote Chinese region, thousands are coerced to work


Far out in China's western region of Xinjiang, authorities have imprisoned thousands of people from the Uyghur ethnic minority without legal justification. They've also coerced thousands of Uyghurs into state or factory jobs. China says it's trying to combat terrorism in the region and promote economic growth. And countries, including the U.S., buy millions of dollars' worth of goods exported from Xinjiang every year. But a new report from C4ADS, a nonprofit data analysis group based in Washington, says those goods could be made with forced labor.

And joining us to explain more is Irina Bukharin. She's the lead analyst on this report. Irina, welcome.

IRINA BUKHARIN: Thank you for having me.

FENG: So I'm normally based in China. And from there, I've covered these wide scale detentions and emergence of forced labor in the Xinjiang region. But what you've done is examined in minute detail the evolvement of this coercive labor system. Can you explain for us why this is taking place in Xinjiang and who is enforcing it?

BUKHARIN: Yes. The important context here is that the Chinese government is interpreting the distinct identity, religion and culture of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, who are predominantly Muslim, as both a national security threat and as a cultural threat to Chinese unity. And as such, they've been imprisoning Uyghurs and forcing them into coercive labor conditions, uprooting them from their communities, sending them to work in fields and factories hundreds of miles from their families.

China has closed off access to Xinjiang, and that makes it harder to prove whether forced labor is happening by talking to people directly. But the Uyghur diaspora has provided overwhelming evidence, through sharing their own experiences and those of relatives and community members, that forced labor is taking place at a systemic level in Xinjiang.

FENG: All right. And what kinds of goods are these Uyghur laborers producing when they're assigned to these state jobs? Are these common products? Might I have them in my house?

BUKHARIN: Yes. These are common products that are entering global supply chains, and they're coming to our houses. In particular, some of the goods that we identified that really permeate global supply chains are cotton, tomato-based products, pepper-based products and various items of fabric as well as minerals.

FENG: There are already some big technology firms like Hikvision, the Chinese surveillance camera maker, that's been sanctioned by the U.S. government because their ties to the surveillance regime in Xinjiang. Are there broader sanctions coming that the U.S. government is planning on these goods from Xinjiang?

BUKHARIN: Yes. So last year, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which is coming into effect this coming June. It, among various other measures, presumes that all goods made in Xinjiang were made with forced labor and therefore are banned from entering the United States.

FENG: So you end this report, Irina, helpfully, with recommendations on what policymakers or consumer groups could do to monitor some of these goods and to address the challenges that you've just raised. What are some of those recommendations?

BUKHARIN: Companies and governments need to invest more in some of the methodologies that C4ADS has used to trace supply chains from Xinjiang. And this means relying more on publicly available information. Sometimes this can be easy. There can be a lot of information that is available on the Chinese-language internet, Chinese companies' websites that tells you whether or not goods are coming from Xinjiang. But sometimes this can be quite difficult as well.

FENG: That's Irina Bukharin from the nonprofit C4ADS. Thank you, Irina, for sharing your insights with us.

BUKHARIN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Kathryn Fox