Pairing Programs in Xinjiang: Priority Sectors and Human Rights Risks
October 13, 2020
Ethnic religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are facing widespread human rights abuses. Since 2017, over 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained and “reeducated” in the name of “dissuading religious extremism” and “unifying the motherland.” Credible organizations state that the situation in the XUAR may constitute crimes against humanity. Forced labor forms one aspect of these efforts—moving minorities into factory work is seen as a means to cut their ties to their traditional culture and religion and cement their loyalty to China’s central government. Two interlinked, large-scale government programs—pairing programs and poverty alleviation programming—have the overall ambition of promoting economic development in XUAR, and they incorporate efforts to “reform” the thinking of ethnic minorities by putting them to work. This analysis provides more detail about how government pairing programs operate and their potential linkages to human rights abuses, including forced labor.
Q1: What are Pairing Programs?
A1: “Pairing Aid Programs” or “Pairing Programs”(对口支援) are government-initiated policy programs through which specific regions within the XUAR are paired with more economically advanced Chinese provinces. The strategic objective is to marshal economic power to ensure the security and stability of the Chinese border areas, which are physically removed from the wealth of Eastern China and culturally disparate from Han-dominated inner China.
When a Chinese province is paired with a specific region of the XUAR, it encourages its companies to engage in pairing activities and poverty alleviation efforts with that region, including receiving labor transfers of minorities or making direct financial contributions. Provincial and local authorities and party members play an important role in driving and coordinating company engagement. Pairing programs in the XUAR are not new but raise elevated concerns today given the links between economic development planning and human rights abuses in the region. And recent reporting indicates that pairing programs also play a role in large-scale forced labor in Tibet.
Q2: What are the main sectors involved in XUAR pairing programs?
A2: Each pairing program has at least one sectoral focus. XUAR sectoral pairing priorities correspond to the industrial needs of their paired province. For example, textile and agriculture sector needs are prioritized for the pairing programs in which Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces are involved. Our research suggests that while agricultural production is the most dominant priority, textiles, electronics and machinery, mining, chemicals, and medical equipment are also common focus areas. At least 18 provinces are involved in pairing programs.
Our research is preliminary, and more is needed to identify the additional actors and sectors involved in pairing. Our research also suggests that companies involved in pairing may come from other sectors in addition to those designated as priorities.
Q3: What are the various ways in which companies can participate in pairing programs?
- Economic aid. This type of aid refers to the contribution of funds from an inland Chinese company to its paired region in the XUAR or of special funds and subsidies. This also can take the form of creating industrial policy packages to attract labor-intensive firms engaged in pairing programs so that they build factories in XUAR industrial zones. ByteDance’s donation of 3 million yuan to poverty alleviation efforts in Hotan City is an example of economic aid as part of XUAR’s pairing program.
- Industrial projects. This type of aid refers to promoting the construction of industrial cities within the XUAR or the expansion of inland Chinese subsidiaries in the XUAR focused on labor-intensive industries. An example of this would be Zhaojin Mining, one of China’s largest rare earth mining companies, and its production in the XUAR. As another example, in 2015 Alibaba constructed the Alibaba-Dacheng Industrial Belt in Liaoning Province’s counterpart Dacheng, encouraging the settlement of 426 enterprises within the belt to grow e-commerce in the XUAR (notably, this occurred before the mass detention of ethnic minorities in XUAR).
- Talent and culture. This type of aid refers to: (1) tourism or media companies that aim to help create cultural shifts in minority regions, and (2) the transfer of cadres or laborers to advanced regions or parks operated by advanced regions. An example of this would be Huafu Fashion’s receipt of 6,000 local laborers transferred to Aksu Industrial Park. Another example is Shanghai Railway International Tourism Group’s active promotion of Xinjiang as a destination for potential inland Chinese settlers or tourists.
Q4: How are these programs connected to abuses in the XUAR?
A4: Companies involved in pairing programs may engage with the XUAR in a number of different ways, with different implications for whether and how they are linked to human rights abuses.
Accepting labor transfers, both within the XUAR and at factories in other regions of China, is the best-known risk. The government has long believed that incorporating ethnic minorities into manufacturing jobs serves as a means of bringing them into mainstream Han Chinese culture (or “Sinicizing” them). Consistent with this belief, the government is transferring ethnic and religious minorities to work in factories in the XUAR and in the rest of China. This now takes place against a backdrop of massive detention and surveillance aimed at subduing the minority population and changing their mindset and loyalties. For example, government notices show that the local Aksu government gathered over 4,000 local residents over two years to be “deradicalized” and take textile-making courses under “closed-off, military style” management before being transferred to textile factories.
Poverty alleviation efforts and the pairing program both rely on such labor transfers, where the aim is to reduce poverty and develop the region while also reeducating poor, rural minorities through work. Certain companies involved in pairing have accepted transfers of workers from extrajudicial detention centers—what the government calls "Vocational Skills Education Training Centers" (职业技能教育培训中心) or "Education Training Centers" (教培中心) as well as through poverty alleviation programming. These minority populations are urged or required to work in factories, sometimes far below minimum wage, according to the CSIS Human Rights Initiative interviews and other sources.
Some companies involved in pairing are expected to open factories in XUAR and may be asked to receive government transfers of XUAR workers within the region itself and in their factories in mainland China. Pairing program policies reveal how higher-level authorities can use state powers to encourage the transfer of regional cadres, capital, and projects from advanced areas to underdeveloped ethnic minority border areas such as XUAR.
Some argue that companies involved in pairing are implicated in the widespread abuses in XUAR even if they are not receiving labor transfers. For example, financial support for government poverty alleviation programming as part of pairing could in some instances enable the building of “vocational training centers” involved in reeducation or help fund government agencies supporting labor transfers to other companies. The donation of poverty alleviation funding to governmental and quasi-governmental entities that are subject to U.S. sanctions, such as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), could also raise legal risks for Chinese companies with sufficient U.S. links.
Involvement in pairing should be seen as a red flag, indicating that a company presents heightened risk and requires more examination. Unfortunately, it may be challenging to understand the exact role a company plays in pairing based on publicly available documents and whether that is problematic from a human rights perspective. CSIS found that increasing numbers of webpages discussing company involvement in pairing have been taken down, exacerbating the challenge.
In one example of how pairing works in practice, XUAR’s Aksu region is paired with Zhejiang province. As of 2017, textile enterprises from Zhejiang involved in the XUAR’s pairing aid program invested in 129 projects built in 105 villages, with total investments of 2.353 billion yuan, 389 factories, and the creation of more than 17,000 jobs. Zhejiang’s established textile enterprises, including Huafu Fashion, constructed Aksu Industrial Park and created factories within the park as part of their pairing efforts, intended to support poverty alleviation efforts. As of 2019, Huafu invested 5 billion yuan in Aksu Industrial Park and received transfers of more than 6,000 minority local employees in the process. Huafu’s factory reportedly employed workers from government training programs intended to “cleanse” workers of extremism. Huafu also manages a training “college” within Aksu Industrial Park for ethnic minority workers and received subsidies from the government for its training activities. Photographs on Xinjiang Huafu’s website show its trainees dressed in matching camouflage uniforms.
Q5: What companies are linked to pairing programs?
A5: Drawing on Chinese government documents, we were able to map out a number of pairing programs in detail, including what mainland counterparts are linked to particular Xinjiang provinces, the prioritized industries for each of those pairings, the names of affiliated pairing companies, and some of the specific infrastructure projects the pairing program seeks to support.
We also found that at least 15 key state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are given “aid flexibility” to provide pairing assistance, meaning that these SOEs can be active in pairing activities not only in the region of the XUAR with which their home province is paired, but also other regions of XUAR.
Below is a chart that maps out a number of pairing programs in detail. It focuses on pairing efforts since 2016, when the situation in XUAR began to dramatically deteriorate, although it includes a handful of examples from 2015. We were not able to determine if the pairing efforts are ongoing. It is possible that some have terminated. Also, the 15 SOEs with aid flexibility do not necessarily appear in the chart below because they are not tied to a particular pairing program
The information in the chart suggests that agriculture and textiles are the most common priorities of the pairing programs, but a number of other sectors also appear. The role that each company plays in pairing can vary significantly. If a company is included in the chart, this means that publicly available records indicate that the company is involved in pairing. Not all companies involved in pairing receive labor transfers and thus raise concerns about potential forced labor. The inclusion of companies below simply indicates a need for further due diligence.
This chart does not cover the entirety of the pairing programs. Indeed, it likely only represents a small percent of the entities and projects linked to the pairing programs. However, it appears to be the most detailed chart to date.
Amy K. Lehr is director and senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mariefaye (Efthimia) Bechrakis is program manager and research associate with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative. Margaret Siu was an intern with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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