How China 'recruits' labor to pick 20 percent of the world's cotton

China produces nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton, with most of that coming from the Xinjiang region of western China. If Xinjiang sounds familiar that’s because it’s the place where China has set up a network of re-education camps for ethnic minorities. The people who are sent to the camps have no choice in the matter. They are told where to go and once they arrive in the camps they are told they won’t be allowed to leave until they comply with the program, including learning Chinese and memorizing loads of communist propaganda.

At the same time China was developing this system of forced re-education, it was also developing a “labor transfer” system in the same region. A portion of Xinjiang’s cotton production has been mechanized but even today about 70% of the cotton is still being picked by hand. And every year for about three months, hundreds of thousands of workers are needed to do this work. And this is where China’s unique mix of communism and capitalism comes into play.

Picking cotton in China is paid work but it’s also grueling work that most people aren’t eager to do. Normally in that situation, the price of labor would go up until wages could entice enough people to do the work. And in the past, producers were able to attract migrant workers from eastern China for the seasonal work, but that meant paying the cost of travel for each worker on top of their wages. And because China is competing on the world market against the U.S. and other places where cotton production is highly mechanized and therefore cheaper, there is significant pressure to keep wages and transportation costs down. One way to do that is by using locals to do the work.

That’s where China’s labor transfer system comes in. It’s really more of a labor recruitment system. It’s not slave labor (workers get paid) but it’s also not a free market. In fact, this system has developed alongside the re-education camps in Xinjiang as an alternate way to keep minorities under constant surveillance and control. The Center for Global Policy published a paper describing in detail how this works.

The replacement of Han labor migrants from eastern China with local ethnic minority laborers who are mobilized through labor transfer schemes is taking place in all cotton-growing regions in Xinjiang. In 2018, of 250,000 cotton pickers in Kashgar Prefecture, 210,900 were locals (via labor transfer policies), 39,100 came from other regions of Xinjiang, and only 6,219 or 2.5 percent hailed from other parts of China…

These changes are directly related to Xinjiang’s expanding push to set up intrusive social control mechanisms and to promote local labor training and transfer mechanisms that target every single rural low income household.

Last month, China announced that it had eliminated extreme poverty in the entire country. One of the ways it did that in Xinjiang was through this “labor transfer” system that makes sure everyone has a job of some kind. But in China the need to meet certain goals outweighs the desires of any particular individual. So recruitment into this system is highly coercive:

In August 2016, Xinjiang issued a notice about the state management of seasonal workers, including cotton pickers. It prescribed a process of close supervision and intensified indoctrination of these workers in collaboration with the public security agencies, notably “thought education and ethnic unity education” to “lead all ethnic workers to obey the law and to proactively resist illegal religious activities.” The recruitment and organization of cotton pickers was to be a top-down, state-controlled process by which local counties coordinate labor needs with cotton planting regions and mobilize the required workforce…

A key aspect is transforming the minorities’ “backwards” work attitude from “I am wanted to work” to “I want to work.” Depending on the training setting and the target group, this training component, which comes prior to any actual vocational training, can last between six days and six months. In some
regions, these vocational training and thought indoctrination efforts were enhanced beyond traditional vocational training settings by
making government officials “sleep, live, work, study and unite thoughts” with households.

The main purpose of this intensified coercion is to enable the state to guarantee labor transfer outcomes. This training process sends a strong message that the
state is in charge.

In practice, this means that government recruitment officials, who have data on everyone in your household, show up and remain in your house until you agree to show the proper attitude. And showing the proper attitude means agreeing to become a recruit for the work transfer program. If you don’t agree after the first visit from officials, maybe you’ll agree after the second visit.

In a village in Jiashi County in Kashgar Prefecture, where locals were discovered to be “unwilling to go out to work,” officials entered every home for a second time and undertook “thought education work” until 60 persons had been mobilized into picking cotton. Many of those shown lining up in front of the labor transfer bus are elderly men and women, because at that time (September 2017) many among the younger population had been sent to internment camps.

As mentioned, other members of these same families may already be in re-education camps. What happens to those relatives if you refuse to be recruited? You don’t know. All you know is that it’s all part of one system where information is being shared about who is doing what the government wants and who is not.

And once you get to the job you were coerced into taking, the government “cadres” who monitor you day and night will make sure you’re getting a full level of indoctrination at the same time:

Another account from 2018 notes that “cadres provide services to cotton pickers 24 hours [per day].” Similarly, a report from Aksu from 2020 states that cotton
pickers are transferred to their work destinations in a “point-to-point transfer” fashion, which the article also refers to as “nanny-style service.” Cadres have different roles, with some acting as “security staff”:

Give full play to the front-line [cadres acting as] ‘instructors,’ ‘security staff,’ and ‘service staff.’ Except under special circumstances, these must eat, live study and work together [with the cotton pickers], actively carry out ideological education during cotton picking, carry out epidemic prevention and control work, and assist in solving issues related to wage [payments] or accidental injuries.

Getting ideological education while being forced to pick cotton has to be one of the nine circles of hell. Again, it’s not quite slave labor because the people involved are paid but it’s also not at-will employment since it’s not clear they have much choice about agreeing to do the work in the first place or that they can quit without facing serious repercussions. This is China’s version of top-down capitalism which, like communism itself, puts the good of the collective over the desires of the individual in every case.

There’s a lot more detail in the full report which you can read here.