Forced Labour, Expansionism: Why China Has Forcefully Occupied Xinjiang

N C Satpathy
·6-min read

Why China has forcefully occupied Xinjiang? What is the real intention of the Communist Party of China that has ruled China autocratically since 1949 to colonise an independent nation with different history, religion language? It is a vicious mix of China’s expansionism, resource concerns and geo-strategic treachery.

Forced labour

The UN, quoting credible sources, said in 2018 that China was keeping millions of Uyghurs Muslims and minorities in secret detention camps in Xinjiang, something that has been repeated by the Uyghur community and human rights activities and different leaders from across the world. One way to use that forced headcount is to use them as forced labour in different Chinese industries.

According to an investigative report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra-based defence and strategic policy think tank, China is transferring Uyghurs to different Chinese industries across the country where they are forced to work in low-paying jobs. ASPI’s report put the number of Uyghurs transferred outside Xinjiang at 80,000 between 2017 and 2019. Those forced into Chinese industries inside Xinjiang is expected to be much higher. An investigative report from BuzzFeed says over 1500 Chinese companies are located near or inside Uyghur detention camps in Xinjiang.

The US has passed a bill that requires companies to disclose if they are directly or indirectly connected with forced labour practices in Xinjiang. Britain has said there is credible evidence that China is pushing Uyghurs as forced labour inside and out of the Xinjiang region. Australia is mulling to strengthen the law against modern slavery after China’s forced labour practice in Xinjiang and the move has got support from the US President Joe Biden.

Global Cotton Yard

Eighty percent of cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and almost all major brands either buy cotton yarn from the province or have their production facilities there.

Xinjiang’s cotton that accounts for 20% of total international trade in cotton is produced, using forced labour of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities of the region. A BBC report says around half a million Uyghur Muslims and minorities are forced each year into cotton fields.

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Expansionism

Xinjiang under Chinese control gives it access to border territories of India, Pakistan (through Pakistan occupied Jammu & Kashmir, an integral Indian territory), Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

While China has used Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for its energy needs, putting these countries in Chinese debt trap with loans and heavy investment, its design for India and Afghanistan have been expanding the Chinese territory.

China occupied Aksai Chin, a Ladakh territory after 1962 India-China war. Aksai Chin is situated largely in Xinjiang with a small portion in Tibet Autonomous Region and connects Tibet to Xinjiang. It forced Pakistan to cede the Shaksgam Valley, now known as Trans Karakoram Tract, an Indian land occupied by Pakistan, in 1963 and now it is also a part of the Xinjiang region.

There have been reports that China has created a military base in the Wakhan Corridor of the Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan though China has denied it. Afghanistan has requested China to train its soldiers against ISIS and Al Qaeda threats but an unpredictable China can used it for its expansionist designs in Afghanistan in future.

New silk road epicentre

Sixty percent of China’s trade happens through sea while its 80% oil supply passes through the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping strait between Indian and Pacific Oceans. An analysis by the geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor says trade through sea routes is China’s weakness. It says maritime trade routes used by China are rather vulnerable because external powers like the U.S forces patrol them. Add the Strait of Malacca angle to this. The waterway connects Andaman Sea to South China Sea and India, and in case of conflict, can easily choke China’s oil supply.

So, China is looking to establish alternate ways to route its trade and reviving the ancient Silk Road is an option in Chinese strategic circles and Xi Jinping is trying to put that into action finally. Historically, Chinese dynasties used the Silk Road through the territory now known as Xinjiang for trade with Middle East and European countries. China is working to rebuild that ancient trade route and, naturally, Xinxiang is its core point, the connecting link that China needs to possess. The new Silk Road will connect China to central Asian nation, Middle East and Europe.

A link with the central Asian nations is important for China for its energy needs with the Strait of Malacca being a vulnerable trade route. Called as ‘Second Middle East’, central Asian nations have abundant natural resources. Kazakhstan has 11th largest oil reserves in the world, 1.8% of world total. Turkmenistan has world’s sixth largest natural gas reserve while Uzbekistan is the third largest gas producer in the Eurasian region. And the short supply lines between China and nearby central Asian nations can easily be land based via oil pipelines.

China is the largest economic partner of central Asian nations, investing heavily for over two decades in development of infrastructure like cross border pipelines, transport corridors, roads and railways to help in energy trade and the practice has only intensified under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, an infrastructure corridor being developed by China across different continents.

One problem that China may face in central Asian nations is protests over the Chinese crackdown on Uyghur Muslims because Islam is the main religion in all of these countries. To counter these, China has trapped these countries in its debt trap through infrastructure development. It’s FDI in central Asian nations, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2018 was around $6 billion dollars. Kyrgyzstan owed 30% of its GDP as Chinese debt in 2017. Tajikistan’s 40% external debt is from China.

Also, the economy of these countries is now largely dependent on China. China is the main buyer of natural gas from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 84% of Kazakhstan’s fuel, metals and minerals were exported to China in 2018. China is the largest buyer of natural gas from Turkmenistan and is developing a manufacturing belt in Uzbekistan with 46 projects worth $6.8 billion dollars.

Also read: Relationship with China is One of 'Strong Competition': White House

Chinese hub for coal, oil and natural gas

Xinjiang has over 40% of China’s coal reserves a Global Times report says. Ranked number one in China, the coal reserves in Xinjiang are ‘extraordinarily rich’ the report adds. For its energy needs, China is largely dependent on coal. 65% of its electricity generated and 60% of all energy needs are coal based.

Xinjiang contains over 25% of China’s natural and petroleum gas reserves. It is China’s largest oil production area. According to report from The New York Times, Xinjiang had 21 billion tonnes of oil reserve in 2014. Further discoveries may only add up to this figure.

A Xinhua report says Xinjiang has the largest production base in China for high-quality naphthenic base heavy oil, a rare material which is used in products like rocket propellant.