May 18, 2016: Nevada Republican Congressman Reid Ribble (R) holds a solar panel for a photo during his visit to the SolarWest solar plant in Henderson, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By now everyone has heard of the ongoing controversy in China over the use of forced labor. In response to a government order, more than 40 factories employing 3.5 million factory workers have agreed to dismiss about one million workers in the Xinjiang region, where forced labor is rampant. This is the first time the government has instituted such a massive restructuring and conversion of companies for a forced labor replacement project. The textile and shoe industries are behind the decision, which has had little public opposition, such as local fears about working conditions going away.
The Chinese government has also created “patriotic education” to get workers to accept the change. This has resulted in Chinese manufacturing jobs being redirected to Xinjiang. The government has put a great deal of effort into making sure that those who do leave can find a new job elsewhere, as well as making sure that they can go back to the Xinjiang region for payment and other benefits.
However, Xinjiang is a land fraught with problems. The issue of censorship has found its way into the recent scandals surrounding WeChat, the mobile messaging application. The government has ordered all companies to separate messages to users from their personal accounts, and the company has received public pressure for this. The WeChat censorship policy has also caused a great deal of concern because the censorship of personal messages is seen as infringing on the freedoms that permit many users to practice their religion.
The CEO of Sina Weibo, a microblogging platform, was quoted as saying that the conversation between friends is now getting filtered. It is true that some messages are now getting blocked, and because many users can only access many of their messages in the foreground it is possible that they are blocked even on personal account. This creates great difficulties for users in managing their messages while also distancing users from user-friendly solutions to this problem.
Xinjiang is also a home to the roots of Uyghur ethnic separatists. For several years the Xinjiang region has hosted rallies to discuss and call for independence. Such gatherings attract some 40,000 to 50,000 people, and many of the speakers are former students of the Central Asian University in Beijing. While the government is turning out to accommodate these fans of freedom of speech, the government cannot provide them with jobs. In many cases the university itself is under investigation.
The government has instituted a couple of propaganda campaigns to distract from the use of forced labor. For one, they have extolled the greatness of the regions. This rhetoric will distract them from knowing their true problems. In addition, they have bragged about the area’s relative lack of crime, lack of pollution, and great recycling programs, while ignoring that these efforts exist in order to deflect attention from its own shortcomings.
The government’s focus on domestic economic growth has been good for workers here. For years, the manufacturing and textiles industries have provided employment. However, the government has put resources into Xinjiang that have given employers not only “off-the-job training” but also large subsidies that make their labor-intensive operations less costly. These businesses are difficult to make more competitive. Without reducing the use of forced labor, they are extremely unlikely to do so.
Now that the government has emphasized development in Xinjiang, it will increasingly rely on it to help build the nation, although its role will be very limited. The hand-over of factories from Western companies to the newly created “red industries” will prevent the outsourcing of production that occurred before the split. These companies will have an eye on the future, and need jobs, so they will probably retrain factory workers to work in other areas. However, in China there are few options besides Xinjiang, and this will affect the overall growth rate of the country in the future. The border is now a stopover point on the way to the Middle Kingdom.
More worryingly, it highlights the problems that are caused when political control over jobs and labor is used as a lever to influence the nation. The flexibility of the companies that once employed Western workers could be eliminated, and a rural worker could have her job taken by a countryman. The general effect of a shift in industries would be to enhance socioeconomic equality, but the government would find ways to justify the lower incomes generated by the situation. No one wants an economy that is unfair, but policy must always be above human life.