It is China’s longstanding policy to use prison inmates for forced labor, and ever since the Communist Party took power in 1949 it has shipped prisoners from elsewhere in China to Xinjiang to do hard labor and “contribute to Xinjiang’s economic development” in the harsh desert environment. Xinjiang now has the highest percentage of prisoners per capita in China. Excluding Uighur re-education camps, there are some 75 prisons in Xinjiang (population 22 million) compared with fewer than 30 in Shandong province (99 million).

In 2014 the Chinese government implemented a strategy to suppress Uighurs in Xinjiang even more. It involves the detention of large numbers of Uighurs in so-called re-education camps or vocational training centers, intended to cleanse them of their ethnic identity and make them loyal to the Communist Party. Observers estimate that China has detained more than one million Uighurs in this system.

Simultaneously, the government launched an initiative to spur the vertical integration of China’s garment manufacturing sector by moving textile and garment factories closer to cotton production in Xinjiang, where Uighurs can be used for employment. The Chinese government has provided textile and apparel companies with forced labor from re-education camps to work in their Xinjiang production facilities.