2 November 2023

Transformation Through Hard Labour: The Double Burden of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Workers

The promotion of economic development is integral to Communist Party of China’s objective of ensuring social stability in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is encompassed in Xi Jinping’s speech during his trip to Urumqi in August where he talked of promoting high-quality development, and improving people’s well-being through infrastructural expansion, growth of industries and employment generation. In seeking to turn the region into ‘the gateway of the country’s westward opening up’, is the realization that the hard crackdown in the region for close to a decade since 2014 – when Xi made his first trip to Xinjiang after becoming CPC General Secretary – has negatively impacted the region’s economy. 

This involves both the forcible transfer of Uyghur workers from Xinjiang to supplier factories in other parts of China, and the complicity of the global brands and their facilities operating within XUAR in the Party-state’s repressive actions. Over time, this scrutiny of global corporations and their suppliers has compelled Western governments to take punitive economic actions. The US has, for example, imposed sanctions on products and services that are deemed to be complicit in abuse of Uyghurs - the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (UFLPA) in 2021 by the Joe Biden administration seeks to prevent its citizens from supporting the Party-state’s repressive practices, and encourages brands to take their supply chains outside Xinjiang in order to access the American market. The UFLPA follows the previous Trump administration’s ban on cotton produced under the supervision of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in XUAR in 2020. 

China has striven to counter this stigma attached to the region’s industries and these accusations. Around the same time of Xi’s visit to Urumqi, CPC Xinjiang provincial secretary, Ma Xingrui was trying to convince the International Labour Organization of the country’s clean track record. He asserted that the forced labour charges were simply rumours aimed at derailing the province’s efforts to expand employment and secure people’s livelihoods. Given the post-pandemic economic crisis, the Party-state is clearly anxious to keep the economy moving.

Justification Through Employment 

The Party-state has justified its political re-education measures – which also includes the patriotic education campaign to instill pride for the Chinese nation while quelling radicalism and dissent – as equipping Uyghur youth with requisite skills and making them employable. Thus, the ‘mass internment camps’ that the West has identified as spaces for illegal detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities, have been classified as vocational education and training centres, to guide the youth to achieve future employment goals, and undergo thorough deradicalization. The Chinese State Council’s September 2020 White Paper on Employment and Labour Rights in Xinjiang, in response to accusations about detention camps, claims to have created two million new jobs for the region’s residents between 2014 and 2019. It also makes the right noises about respecting workers’ job preferences and affirming labour protection including application of international labour-human rights standards while self-proclaiming increase in family incomes, improving living standards and enhancing employability. The White Paper normalizes the relocation of surplus rural labour in Xinjiang, on similar lines as in the rest of China over the years, 

‘they…turn from farmers to workers. In this process, they learn skills, increase their incomes, and achieve prosperity; more importantly, they have broadened their horizons, acquired knowledge and greater abilities, and achieved their potential. Most people are satisfied with their current life and are optimistic about the future’. 

The Party-state has even been able to extract some ‘positive opinion’ from the Uyghurs to embellish its narrative.

(Individual) Transformation through Labour – Mao Then, Xi Now

The predominance of the narrative of employment or employability of Uyghurs in the Chinese campaign in Xinjiang aligns with Xi Jinping’s vision for labour that prioritizes development, and upgradation of human capital for higher productivity. He envisages the cultivation of a large workforce of high quality talent – reflecting the Party-State’s highly transactional relationship with labour that is rooted purely in the extraction of value. This has figured throughout Xi’s reign at the Party’s helm. At the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, for example, he highlighted the need to ‘build an educated, skilled, and innovative workforce, foster respect for model workers, promote quality workmanship, and see that taking pride in labour becomes a social norm and seeking excellence is valued as a good work ethic’. 

Xi’s 'common prosperity’ discourse since the middle of 2021, also emphasizes ‘high-quality development relies on high-calibre workers’. It reinforces the increasing demands globally for investing in ‘human capital to develop a person’s full potential’ to develop an employable workforce. This calculated approach towards labour in Xi Jinping’s New Era, however, denudes labour of its social character. Instead, it is sanitized as a moral virtue – reminiscent of the saying, “work is worship” – to be earned by all individuals. Unsurprisingly, the virtue assigned to labour is also attuned to the demand-and-supply dynamics of market, that is mediated by the socialist state. 

In repeatedly encouraging the achievement of happiness and prosperity through hard work, the message to people is to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, rather than expect intervention by the Party-state. This amplification of hard labour as a vehicle to fulfill aspirations and transform lives, is intended to make it a characteristic feature of Chinese-style modernization, entirely directed by the CPC. It puts the onus on individuals for their self-improvement, while also compelling them morally to do so, in the service of the Chinese nation. Ascribing patriotic value to work ethic and hard labour becomes a double burden for the non-Han population – not only do they have to be active participants in fulfilling the Party-state’s objectives, but any infringement is also construed as a deviation and deemed unpatriotic. 

This individual transformation through hard labour is an extension of Mao’s concept of revolutionary consciousness, that is supposed to be developed through the perseverance of sheer human will and a sense of spiritual upliftment achieved through struggle. At the heart of Maoist philosophy – which consisted of features like diligence, frugality, collective spirit, sacrifice, and self-reliance – was the proletarian work ethic. Considering it as a superior transformative force, the 1954 constitution of China posited: ‘work is a matter of honour for every citizen of the People’s Republic of China who is able to work. The state encourages citizens to take an active and creative part in work’. 

After more than four decades of ‘economics in command’, China’s current supreme ruler is undertaking the re-ideologizing of all aspects of life in China and asserting the dominance of the CPC. Among the various measures and initiatives in this direction, Xi is also taking another leaf out of Mao’s era by emphasising once again the concept of being ‘red’ and ‘expert’. 

On the whole, the hard labour emphasized and deployed by the Chinese Party-state throughout the country in pursuit of fulfilling the objective of the ‘rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation, acquires added meaning in Xinjiang. It is not just about articulating a definite vision of politico-ideological superiority of the CPC, but also ensuring that contrarian trends or anti-Party philosophies are nipped in the bud.


About the Author: Anand P. Krishnan is a Fellow, at the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region.